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Three Periods: Rangers' Brad Richards hungry for bounce-back season

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Brad Richards’ rebound; the budding Blues-Blackhawks rivalry; a breakdown of the Brad Stuart suspension; why Sergei Fedorov is coming back to play in Russia; plus, a suite note on the Coyotes.

FIRST PERIOD: Brad Richards’ start a bright spot amid Rangers’ struggles

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The Rangers have struggled, but Brad Richards is off to a good start after being scratched in 2013 playoffs. ( …

We thought it would be rocky. OK, not this rocky – a flat 4-1 loss at Phoenix, a solid 3-1 win at Los Angeles, an ugly 9-2 loss at San Jose that turned Sharks rookie Tomas ‘Ninja’ Hertl into the talk of hockey, a head injury to Rick Nash – but we expected inconsistency at the start for the New York Rangers. They have a new coach and new philosophy. They have had a strange schedule, and they never iced a full lineup in the preseason. As coach Alain Vigneault said before their opener: “This is still very much work in progress.”

What we didn’t know was how Brad Richards would respond. He has three goals in his past two games – the first two goals in the win at L.A., a 5-on-3 goal amid the mess at San Jose. It’s too early to say it reflects a rebound, but if Richards is ready to bounce back physically, a good start could help mentally.

Richards’ first few games were good last season, too, but he quickly declined and never recovered. He went from a marquee free agent who commanded a nine-year, $60 million contract in 2011 to a compliance buyout candidate in 2013. He went from choosing to play for coach John Tortorella, under whom he once won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe in Tampa Bay, to having Torts choose not to play him. He went from power-play quarterback to power-play spectator, from team leader to healthy scratch – when the Rangers faced elimination from the playoffs.

“I don’t believe anybody hasn’t lost confidence,” Richards said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or who you are, there’s always moments in your career. I’ve lost it before. It just didn’t snowball, and I probably didn’t handle it the right way [last season] in the environment I was in. So it’s over. Move on, and learn from it.”

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Richards is 33. He is not old. But he showed up out of shape when the lockout ended in January, and he wasn’t going to make the same mistake after the Rangers decided to keep him for at least one more season. He met trainer Ben Prentiss through former Tampa Bay teammate Martin St-Louis, who won the NHL scoring title last season at age 37, and he went through a 12-week program of diet and exercise that left him eager to play. “No matter who you are and how old you are, the quicker you can be out there, the better,” Richards said. Teammates see a difference – and not just in his legs. “His demeanor’s a lot more positive,” said center Brian Boyle.

Vigneault has given Richards a fresh start. He started him out at left wing instead of center, then moved him back to center on Thursday morning before a game at Anaheim. He also put him back on the point on the power play. The Rangers kept changing their looks on the power play last season – an effect of their struggles, obviously, but maybe also a cause. They couldn’t get back in sync. Richards hopes the Rangers stick with it more this season. If his game is together, it will be easier for the Rangers to put everything together as they adjust to Vigneault.

“I think there were some parts of my game sometimes that weren’t that far off,” Richards said. “I just kind of lost it a little bit, confidence, there. It went the other way. But I’ve got to still have self-belief, and that’s why a summer of good training will help that. I know I put in the work, and now I’ve got to do it.”

SECOND PERIOD: Blues-Blackhawks should become premier rivalry

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Is there anyone better than the Blues and Blackhawks in the West? (AP)

As the St. Louis Blues battled the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night, NBC’s between-the-benches analyst, Pierre McGuire, asked his colleagues in the booth if they thought it felt like a playoff game. Long pause. “Almost,” said play-by-play man Doc Emrick.

Again, it’s October, and let’s not get carried away, especially because the game meant much more to the Blues, a team with something to prove, than the Blackhawks, who have won two Cups in four years. When Chicago captain Jonathan Toews told reporters beforehand the ’Hawks were calling it “the first playoff game of the year,” he said they were joking.

But that was a hell of a hockey game for so early in the season. The Blues are already showing why they are a popular pick to win the Cup, and Blues-Blackhawks now should be a premier rivalry.

The Blues went back and forth with the Blackhawks – Vladimir Tarasenko scored, then Patrick Kane; captain David Backes scored, then Toews – and the Blues won, 3-2, when Alexander Steen ripped one in with 21 seconds left. They have won their first three games, all at home, but more important is how they’ve won them. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak has a .948 save percentage and a shutout. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo leads the team in scoring with five points. Steen has three goals. Backes and Tarasenko each have two.

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In 2011-12, the Blues racked up 109 points, tied for second in the NHL. Last season, they had to fight to make the playoffs. Coming out of the lockout, their goaltending was porous because of injury and rust, and they were discombobulated for a while. “Those types of ebbs and flows can change your psyche and the way you play a little bit, and I think that may have affected our production as well,” Backes said. “Maybe you try to lock it down and your offensive production really suffers.”

Goaltender Brian Elliott found his form later in the season, and they won 12 of their last 15 entering the playoffs. They won their first two playoff games against the Kings, the team that had swept them in the second round the previous year. Then they lost four straight, and it didn’t feel as bad as it should have because, well, they had rallied to make it in the first place. “That’s toxic and can be a real detriment,” Backes said.

The standard is higher now. Making the playoffs isn’t good enough. The Blues expect to compete for the Cup. They expect their goaltending and defense to be their strength, and they know they need to score more. Thanks to realignment, they almost certainly won’t see the Kings in the first two rounds, and with the Detroit Red Wings off to the East, they are now the Blackhawks’ main challenger in the Central Division. “We’ll have to get through them to advance,” Backes said.

Works the other way, too. Next Blues-Blackhawks game? Next Thursday in Chicago.

THIRD PERIOD: Explaining Brad Stuart’s three-game suspension

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Brad Stuart went too high when he hit – and hurt – the Rangers' Rick Nash. (USA Today)

Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart received a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Rangers winger Rick Nash on Tuesday night. Three takeaways:

1. The NHL department of player safety is more consistent than most realize. Two games has been the minimum for an illegal check to the head. Examples: The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Joffrey Lupul and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nate Thompson each received two-game suspensions in March for illegal checks to the head. But neither of those hits resulted in an injury, and this one did. Nash is expected to be out seven to 10 days. That’s why Stuart got three games. An injury can’t make a legal play illegal, but can make a suspension longer.

2. This is exactly the type of head shot that not only could have been avoided, but could have been a hard, clean check. Stuart, a veteran, has a virtually spotless history, as the NHL noted in its explanatory video. But on this particular hit, he simply went too high. He had Nash lined up perfectly. He could have put his left shoulder through Nash’s chest. Instead, he rose up and struck Nash in the head. The NHL wants keep a physical game but reduce head trauma.

3. This helps illustrate why the rule was rewritten before the season. The old key language: “the head is targeted and the principal point of contact.” When the league suspended Raffi Torres in May, Sharks GM Doug Wilson challenged the ruling largely based on those words. The new key language: “the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable.” The league used to have a standard of reckless targeting, but the targeting implies intent. The league also considered principal to mean main, but some thought it meant first. Now it’s clearer. The league has not changed its application of the rule, just the definition.

Bottom line: Stay low. Avoid the head if you can, or you’re going to get at least two games – more if you cause an injury.

OVERTIME: Sergei Fedorov never intended to retire as a player

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Sergei Fedorov never retired, and he's returning to play in the KHL at age 43. (Yahoo! Sports)

Sergei Fedorov has signed himself. The general manager of CKSA Moscow in the KHL will reportedly come out of retirement to play at age 43. But remember: After he left the NHL in 2009, he played three more seasons in the KHL, plus an Olympics. And when he became a GM last year, he didn’t feel finished as a player. He just had a bad back and needed time off, and an opportunity arose in the meantime.

“I never said that I’m finishing my career, I’m retiring, because I don’t want to look stupid after I rethink my position,” Fedorov told Yahoo Sports a year ago. “I’m doing something close to hockey. At the same time, I’m recovering a little bit. I got some ideas where I should go with my back.”

He said he was skating and feeling better. “I have a lot of witnesses,” he said with a smile.

Now he’ll have a lot more, and he will (presumably) finish his career with the team from which he defected to join the Red Wings in 1990. Guess now we know why he won’t play in the Winter Classic alumni game.

SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL

— Why do the Rangers need time to figure out Vigneault? They sat back under Tortorella. Their identity was built on blocking shots. But because they have a good skating team and defensemen who can move the puck, Vigneault wants the puck out of their end as quickly as possible. He wants defensemen joining the rush, 2-on-2’s becoming 3-on-2’s, 3-on-3’s becoming 4-on-3’s, and he wants forwards driving to the net. All that won’t come naturally at first, and there will be mistakes that look bad. “As we move forward here, guys get more comfortable,” Vigneault said. “They can understand their reads a little bit better. Then it’s just instinct, and it just evolves.”

Remember last week’s Third Periods note on the Nashville Predators? Something about Seth Jones not pairing with Shea Weber? Yeah, well, um, Roman Josi suffered a concussion after being hit Colorado’s Steve Downie, so Jones shifted to the left side and paired with Weber after all. He played 25:02 on Tuesday night, not bad for a 19-year-old defenseman, especially considering it was 1:36 more than Weber did. He picked up his first NHL point, an assist on the power play, as the Predators picked up their first victory, 3-2 over Ryan Suter’s Minnesota Wild, of all teams. Suter, once Weber’s longtime partner in Nashville, had an assist on the power play in 25:57.

— Among the issues in Phoenix: Jobing.com Arena has 87 suites on two mid-level concourses, each of which can accommodate as many as 20 people. That’s way too much supply for too little demand – and it looks bad when they’re empty in the middle of the bowl. The Coyotes sold only about 20 suites last season. They’re trending toward about 40 now under new ownership and think they can sell more, but they would like to reduce their inventory to about 60 and turn about 20 suites at one end of the building into a club area.

— Biggest early surprise? Not the Colorado Avalanche (3-0-0 entering Thursday night), which has tons of young talent. Not the Toronto Maple Leafs (3-1-0), who are so often a tease. Clearly it’s the Calgary Flames (2-0-2). They were the consensus choice to be the worst team in the NHL, and they might be just that before long. But a team with supposedly no future suddenly has 18-year-old center Sean Monahan, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft, leading the team in goals with three and tied for the lead in points with five. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

— These silly hockey controversies make me want to Hertl. The kid is 19. He scored four goals in his third game for the Sharks, giving him six goals already in his embryonic NHL career. He made a play that only the likes of Pavel Datsyuk have the skill, let alone the guts, to pull off, and he not only drew attention to himself but to his sport. Yeah, he put his stick between his legs and put the puck top-shelf at the end of a blowout against the Rangers. But it was a spur-of-the-moment play, not an unsportsmanlike celebration, not what Joe Thornton said he would have done, and it worked. Don’t like it? Stop it.

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