NEW YORK – Yes, this is why Brad Richards signed with the New York Rangers, and this is why they wanted him.
Here he was Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, soaked in sweat and wearing the Broadway Hat, the silly black fedora – a few sizes too small – the guys give to the player of the game. He had lived up to his billing as a clutch playoff performer, scoring the all-important first goal just 1:32 into the first period, setting the tone for a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, leading the Rangers to their first Eastern Conference final since 1997.
But the truth is, Richards didn't envision this, not exactly. "I didn't know where we were going to be right now," he said. He didn't know the Rangers would win a Game 7 at MSG this season, let alone two in two rounds, when they hadn't even played a Game 7 at MSG since 1994. He didn't know they would inch so close to the Stanley Cup so quick.
All he knew is that he was joining a young, up-and-coming team that should have a chance to win the Cup someday, and for now, for all they have accomplished so far, that is still what the Rangers are. We still don't know how good they are yet.
"To me, we're still in the middle of the process of the New York Rangers trying to become one of the elite teams," coach John Tortorella said. "For a young group of guys, it's a tremendous experience. … This is where your legacy's made, in the playoffs, and so it's going to be interesting to see what happens in the next couple weeks here as we go into another phase."
The Rangers will face their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils. You can go back to 1994, the last time they faced each other in the conference final, and recall all the moments from that great seven-game series. You can also go back to September, when Richards attended a season-preview event at the Devils' home rink, and remember what he said in a quiet moment then.
With teams literally lining up at the door of his agent's office July 1, the day the free-agent market opened, Richards made a long-term commitment to the Rangers. He signed a nine-year, $60 million contract.
And he didn't do it for any one reason; he did it for several. There was the money and his familiarity with Tortorella, with whom he won the 2004 Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, not to mention the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. But there was the appeal of the East, the history of the Original Six, the bright lights of Broadway, the lure of the Big Apple. There was the opportunity. He was supposed to center the top line, click with winger Marian Gaborik and teach the kids how to win.
"It's not a one-time thing with this team," Richards said then in an atrium of the Prudential Center. "You can see it growing. So there's going to be a window of years here we can keep growing and keep getting better. It would be great if it is this year, but it's not just this year that I'm looking at. They're building something here, and I'm still young enough to be a part of that."
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Richards, 32, was a big part of it in this series. He set up Gaborik's triple-overtime winner in Game 3. He scored the tying goal with 7.6 seconds left in Game 5, giving the Rangers a chance to win in OT. Then he put them on the board in Game 7, stepping into a shot in the left circle and blasting it through a screen – and this was a series in which the team that scored first won every game.
He also made defensive plays Saturday night – dropping to the ice to break up an attempted pass from Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin at one point – and won 14 faceoffs in 22:03. He finished the series with a team-high six points.
"It seems like he thrives in these moments," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said.
But what about the moments to come?
It says something that the Rangers have won seven-game series against teams with different styles. Though the Ottawa Senators are a speedy offensive team and the Capitals have become a gritty defensive team, the Rangers have continued forechecking relentlessly, blocking shots fearlessly and getting great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist.
"I think our style is trying not to adapt," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "It's making them adapt to us and trying to play our game as much as we can. We've been consistent in that all year long, and we keep on going with what we are."
That gives them confidence, and it should. They won the East in the regular season. They have won two rounds. They have done it their way.
"I think we can play with anybody," Callahan said. "As long as we play our game and worry about us, we'll be OK."
Yet this is a No. 1 seed that had to go the distance with a No. 8 seed and then a No. 7 seed, not a good thing even in an era of parity. This is a team that plays a grinding style with a short bench, Tortorella often relying on three lines and five defensemen. This is a team short on offensive stars – outside of Richards and Gaborik – that wins by the tightest of margins. This is a team that survives more than it thrives sometimes. As Richards said: "We haven't done a lot of tic-tac-toe, blowing out teams, that type of stuff."
Attrition could catch up with the Rangers, or just luck. They can't keep eking out seven-game victories, can they? The Boston Bruins became the first team to win three seven-game series en route to the Cup last season. What are the Rangers going to do, become the first to win four?
How good are they?
"Uh, I'll tell you after the playoffs, I guess," Callahan said. "We have a confident group in here. We know what we can accomplish."
Asked the same question, Richards laughed under the Broadway Hat. He didn't envision this, not exactly. But here it is – the Rangers, Devils, Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings. Imagine that.
"Four teams," Richards said. "Everybody plays a solid, hard team game. We feel we have as good a chance as anybody."
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