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Monday, June 7, 2004
Slow postseason start didn't stop Richards

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. -- Brad Richards' trip to the big-time hockey stage took a detour to little Prince Edward Island.

The Tampa Bay Lightning center was having a tough go around the holidays when he took a rare trip home. The break did wonders for Richards, who skated off with the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup during a special night Monday.

Richards had just four goals and 15 assists in 31 games following a 1-1 tie at Boston on Dec. 23. That wasn't good enough for the fourth-year player and he heard about it from the Lightning coaching staff.

So he broke from his routine and headed home.

"It was an awful first half," Richards said after Tampa Bay's 2-1 victory in Game 7 over the Calgary Flames that clinched the Lightning's first Stanley Cup.

"I thought the world was falling apart," he said. "I went home for the first time in six or seven years at Christmas and was only for 24 hours. I really enjoyed my family. It just made me realize how fortunate I am to be in the NHL and just go have fun with it."

Richards had 22 goals and 38 assists over the final 51 games as he geared up for the playoff run he wished he had a year ago. It's also what the Lightning coaching staff demanded of him after that game in Boston.

"They went at us both and wanted us to pick up the game," Richards said of himself and teammate Vincent Lecavalier. "I think we both realized it from then and we played a lot better hockey in the second half."

The 24-year-old forward had a miserable introduction to the postseason in 2003, but he bounced back in record-setting fashion.

Richards assisted on the first of Ruslan Fedotenko's two goals, giving him a playoff-best 26 points and sending the Lightning on their way to the championship.

"It's unbelievable, I can't really explain it," he said. "I know it's a cliche, but we wanted to win the Cup and that was the main goal. That's a bonus."

Richards finished the playoffs with 12 goals, including an NHL-record seven game-winners. The MVP award capped off a perfect night at the end of a perfect season for Richards and the champion Lightning.

Tampa Bay went 31-0-2 this season, including 9-0 in the playoffs, when Richards notched a goal. The Lightning didn't get a chance to test that out in the last postseason as Richards had only five assists in 11 playoff games.

No one is complaining now about the Lightning's third-round pick in the 1998 draft.

Richards made Game 7 necessary by scoring two power-play goals two nights earlier in Calgary when the Lightning faced elimination. He didn't let up with the Stanley Cup on the line and many supporters in attendance.

"I have the greatest family in the world," Richards said. "They all flew in today and that makes it even more special that they all could be here."

Richards fired a shot that was kicked out by Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, right to Fedotenko, who gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead with 6:29 left in the first period.

But it was his uncanny ability to score the goals that counted the most in Tampa Bay's run to the Cup that had everyone talking about the guy from PEI.

Everyone, that is, except Richards, who chalked up his winning touch to good fortune.

"When you are from a small place like that, there's not many of us in the NHL," Richards said. "I am so proud of where I'm from. They are behind me every day, every minute. This was for them."

Richards started his winning ways in Game 3 of the first round against the New York Islanders. He then netted the deciding goals in Games 3 and 4 of the second-round sweep of Montreal and Games 1 and 5 versus Philadelphia in the Lightning's first trip to the conference finals.

He tied Joe Sakic's record of six winning goals in the Lightning's 4-1 victory in Game 2. He broke the mark two games later in a 1-0 win at Calgary.

Richards scored 21 goals in his rookie season of 2000-01 and followed that with a 20-goal campaign. He dropped to 17 goals last season before rebounding to score 26 goals this season and setting up 53 others for the Lightning.

After years of being an NHL afterthought, the Lightning have grown into a powerhouse, winning two straight Southeast Division titles and earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference this season.

"We've been playing together since we were 14 years old," teammate Vincent Lecavalier said of Richards. "We came here, both of us, and we were in last place for four years, three years. Now we are winning, so it's unbelievable. It's great."