Brad Richards will be the first to acknowledge his struggles this season -- and identify himself as his own biggest impediment -- but the 32-year-old veteran has turned his game around and it could not have come at a better time.
With two assists in the team’s 4-0 shutout win (his 900th NHL career game) over the Devils Saturday, Richards extended his point streak to six games; he now has five goals and 11 points during that span.
Centering a line with Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash seems to have brought out the best in Richards, especially his play-making ability. Richards laced a perfect pass to Nash for a 3-0 Rangers lead in the second period of Saturday’s regular-season finale and set up what would be Nash’s second goal of the game in the third.
His best hockey yet this year?
"It probably is, the whole season," said the team’s alternate captain. "It’s been a work in progress obviously, but it’s a good time to start feeling good."
The cerebral Richards, often times deemed a "mental case" by his coach John Tortorella for his tendency to over-think things, internalized quite a bit during the course of this lockout-shortened season. When he wasn’t playing well -- a 15-game goalless drought early in the season, another rough stretch in mid-April -- he’d beat himself up for his lack of production.
That often only made matters worse.
"If it’s an 82-game season, I probably don’t let some of the things get to me that I did, but the position we [were] in, it’s tough to see your team battling in [the] eighth, ninth, seventh spot and [you're] not producing," Richards said.
Richards, who inked a nine-year, $60 million contract with the Rangers in July of 2011, admits he was probably his own worst enemy during those low points of the season.
"I might have forced it a little bit because of the short season; I just got out of my game," he said. "My mind got in the way a little bit. Finally, something broke through. Guys were doing a great job of keeping us afloat and I start contributing. It just feels better."
The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, who won a Stanley Cup Championship playing under Tortorella while both were in Tampa Bay, has been a dynamic playoff performer in the past. Richards hopes that continues as the Rangers head into the post-season next week.
"I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s a relief to get in and it’s a great time of year. I’m excited and ready to go," Richards said. "This is by far the best time to play hockey and I can’t wait."