- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- No matter where Brad Richards plays in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals Friday night at Staples Center, it will not compare to where he spent the final two matches of the 2013 postseason -- watching from the press box.
But that doesn’t make it any less painful to suffer the difficulty of a demotion at this time of the season, especially for a proud player whose leadership has been critical to the team’s successful, if not surprising, playoff run.
With the Rangers trailing the Los Angeles Kings 3-0 heading into Wednesday’s action, Richards was dropped to the Rangers' fourth line in Game 4. It was a tough decision for coach Alain Vigneault to make on a personal level, but considering the veteran center’s disappointing play this series, it wasn’t hard to rationalize with the team facing a do-or-die situation.
"First of all, Brad's a team-first guy. I mean, as a coach -- and especially at this time of the year when you don't get a lot of these opportunities -- sometimes you got to make decisions that might be a little tough to make on a personal aspect. But on a team aspect, you have to," Vigneault explained. "I just felt that certain guys were playing a little bit better than Brad. You know, that's the way it is."
Vigneault kept Richards on the power play’s first unit, however, and the 34-year-old actually played more at even strength in Wednesday’s game (9:22) than he did in Game 2 (7:16). Still, his ice time has diminished during the Stanley Cup finals, and he knows that’s a direct result of his play. This isn’t the sort of regression he experienced last spring, but the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner still is not satisfied with his performance. Richards has been held off the score sheet for six straight games, struggling at times to keep pace with the Kings and encountering trouble while taking care of the puck against what has been a very opportunistic opponent.
"I haven't been where I need to be this series, so my ice time has been lower. We're trying to win games, to get to a chance to win a Cup, so " Richards said, trailing off.
Asked to identify where and how his game has become derailed, Richards was candid in his self-assessment:
"Game 2 was rough. I don't know what happened. I just couldn't get out of my own way," he said. "Besides that, if I score a goal, you know, contribute or we win, you probably have a whole different feeling. When you get down 3-0, you fight it a bit. That's the way it goes."
It isn’t just Richards who is struggling. Rick Nash has been held off the score sheet in five straight games. Henrik Lundqvist had been outdueled by Jonathan Quick until Game 4. Steady workhorse defenseman Dan Girardi has had a rough series, too, with bad breaks aplenty and some costly gaffes.
But for Richards, who has emerged as the de facto captain since Ryan Callahan’s departure, there is more at stake than simply another shot at the Cup. He knows his future in New York is in jeopardy with a potential compliance buyout looming.
The Rangers will surely consider exercising their last of two existing compliance buyouts so as to avoid significant financial penalties should Richards retire before the expiration of his nine-year, $60 million contract that runs through 2020.
Richards has not, and will not, talk about that possible scenario yet, nor should he have to. There is a more dire situation that lies immediately ahead, and that is the precarious 3-1 hole the Rangers find themselves in entering Game 5 against an elite Kings squad.
They managed to stave off a sweep Wednesday night, preventing the Kings from lifting the Cup in their building at Madison Square Garden, but now, the Kings will be on home ice trying to secure their second championship in three seasons.
That is the most important concern for Richards and every other Ranger right now.
"It's nice to be given another chance. That's all we wanted to do last night. It wasn't the prettiest game, but we're still here today," Richards said. "If you go this long, you just keep fighting somehow, someway. You figure it out as a group to just fight another day. That's what we're trying to do."