'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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What a difference a year makes. In Thursday's playoff opener, Brad Richards roared. After scoring the go-ahead power-play goal in the Rangers' 4-1 Game 1 victory over the rival Flyers, television cameras picked up Richards' intense gaze on the bench. The Rangers' alternate captain looked like he was breathing fire through his nostrils.
"It was all determination," Richards said. "Trying to do the things we talked about, the game plan. You try not to give them momentum and keep plugging away."
That's exactly what Richards did in Game 1. He kept plugging away. When veteran leaders set the tone, everyone follows. Linemate Carl Hagelin hailed Richards following his one goal, two assist, number-one star performance.
"You could see that the power-play guys were on a mission," Hagelin said. "Getting that quick goal by Richie really helped our confidence. Getting another one right after was key. After that we kept playing well, and didn't give them much."
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault praised Richards following the lopsided victory in which the Rangers outshot the Flyers 12-1 in the third period. Vigneault spoke of the importance of Richards' experience and his ability to communicate messages to teammates.
"That's why he's here," Vigneault said of Richards. "He's an experienced player that's been through the wars before, and I expect him to share his knowledge and bring that to the table every night."
Hagelin described Richards as "a key player" in Game 1 and spoke of the respect teammates have for the 33-year-old who has seen and done it all.
"He's a leader, he's been through it before," Hagelin said. "Any time you have (won) the Cup, you're going to get respect around the room."
Flash back to one year ago. At that time, Rangers fans pondered whether Richards would return for the 2013-14 season. Richards was playing the worst hockey of his life. He looked like lifeless, shaken and far from the player who once won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
That's because John Tortorella sucked the life out of Richards. Tortorella ushered Richards to the TD Garden press box, where Richards sat helplessly for the final games of the Tortorella Era. The player who delivered countless playoff heroics was suddenly a passenger.
The relationship between Richards and Tortorella had deteriorated long before the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and Tortorella's very public defenses of Richards was falling on deaf ears. Few believed Tortorella. He had eroded the confidence of a key, veteran player whom he once shared a close relationship with in Richards' youthful days in Tampa.
VIGNEAULT HAS REBUILT RICHARDS' CONFIDENCE
Last summer, Rangers GM Glen Sather had the opportunity to make Richards and his $6.67 million annual cap hit disappear. Instead, Sather opted to give Richards a chance to prove himself under Vigneault.
Vigneault was introduced at Radio City Music Hall on June 21 while Madison Square Garden was being rebuilt. Soon, Vigneault would go about the task of rebuilding Richards' confidence.
"I believe that your top skill players have to be given a little bit more latitude," Vigneault said in his introductory press conference. "They also have to be given the latitude to make something out of nothing. That's why those guys have high-end skill. You've got to give them that leeway."
Throughout Vigneault's coaching career, he's trusted his veteran players, and his uptempo system allows skill players to take chances. It's an invigorating change for the Rangers, since Tortorella demanded all his players fit into his grinding system that required endless grunt work and little room for natural creativity.
During training camp, Vigneault's mantra was "Clean Slate, Grab It!" The message was displayed on T-shirts of the Rangers as they worked out and handled interviews. Well, Richards has grabbed that clean slate and rolled back the years.
Last season, scouts around the league questioned whether Richards would ever regain his skating legs after opting not to play in Europe during the lockout. Richards spent this offseason working out with renowned trainer Ben Prentiss in Darien, Conn.
The facility is famous for Martin St. Louis' superhuman workout regimens. Richards fully immersed himself into offseason workouts. It's paying off for him at the time when he needs it most. His legs can handle the rigors of an 82-game season and the empty-your-tank nature of the playoffs.
St. Louis shared his insight on what the facility has done for himself, Richards and Derick Brassard.
"It's all about preparation and dedication as an athlete," St. Louis said. "I think that place allows you to do that. I think when you go there, you're going to get pushed the way you've never been pushed before."
THE REAL RICHARDS HAS STOOD UP
Since arriving in New York in 2011, there have been intermittent flickers of Richards' brilliance and game-winning heroics. When Richards signed a nine-year, $58.5 million contract in July of 2011, Rangers fans expected to see a big-game playmaker who was equally beloved in both Dallas and Tampa.
Fans are now seeing the real Richards. Thanks to Vigneault, his natural creativity is shining. Because of Richards' renewed dedication and preparation, he's able to chase down opponents tightly and contribute in all areas of the ice. His legs are allowing him to find unmanned patches of ice to receive passes from teammates to work his magic.
Expect Richards to continue putting in spirited performances and chipping in key goals and assists. At 33, Richards has turned back the clock.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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