When the NHL lost its entire 2004-2005 season due to a lockout between the owners and the players union, it was the darkest year in the sports history.
However, as Commissioner Gary Bettman and then-Executive Director of the NHLPA Bob Goodenow finally reached an agreement, they had a “savior” making his way to the ice.
When the 2005 NHL Draft was held on July 30 in Ottawa, it was no secret who Penguins owner Mario Lemieux was going to select with his first overall pick.
Since the lockout, Sidney Crosby has been the most popular player in the NHL, as it was thought to be when he entered the league as an 18-year-old rookie.
The hype of Crosby was held up by his incredible ability to score and still holds true to this day.
In what could be arguably the greatest junior career in hockey history, Crosby recorded 86 goals and 96 assists for an amazing 182 points with the Cole Harbour Red Wings in 2000-2001 as a 14-year-old.
The next season, as he played midget AAA with the Dartmouth Subways, Crosby didn’t even think about cooling off, pounding home 95 goals along with 98 assists for 193 points. He also added 24 playoff points for a grand total of 217.
He entered the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 2003-04 already internationally known as “the next best thing.”
He won two MVP awards in addition to two Offensive Player of the Year awards as a member of the Rimouski Oceanic in 2004 and 2005. He recorded a whopping 120 goals and 183 assists in only 121 career games.
With the NHL taking a nose dive in popularity in 2005, Sid “the Kid” was on his way to Pittsburgh being selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, as the first overall pick.
While Crosby was shining with Rimouski in 2003, his soon to be arch rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, drafted another Canadian center by the name of Mike Richards.
If Sidney Crosby was “The Dark Knight” this past summer, Mike Richards was “Mamma Mia.”
When Richards was drafted 24th overall by the Flyers in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, he wasn’t even the Flyers top selection. In addition to Richards, the Flyers selected Jeff Carter with the 11th overall pick.
The hype for Crosby in Pittsburgh could have partly been due to the fact the Penguins were in the midst of a five-year basement dwelling in the NHL standings.
When the NHL draft occurs in June, Flyers fans are usually still heart broken from a playoff exit, and not many people pay as much attention to the draft.
When Richards was selected however, a lot of people felt he had the potential to be “the next Bobby Clarke” in Philadelphia.
After winning a Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers in 2003, Richards was showing the Flyers brass he could be the leader of the organization when he captained Canada to a gold medal at the 2005 World Junior Championships with Crosby on his side.
Although they were drafted two years apart, Crosby and Richards both made their NHL debuts in 2005-2006, the first post-lockout season.
Richards made an immediate impact in his first game in the orange and black, netting his first career goal, but Crosby was the show-stopper.
Even though Richards’ Flyers made the postseason in '05-'06, and Crosby’s Penguins were in the cellar, if you look at the numbers, it was all Crosby.
Crosby notched 39 goals and 63 assists in his first year in the NHL, placing second in the Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year to Russian sensation Alex Ovechkin.
Across Interstate 76 in Philadelphia, names like Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne were in the spotlight, while rookie Mike Richards was more of a checking center, notching just 11 goals and 23 assists.
The '06-'07 season marked the resurgence of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise and was one both Richards and the Flyers never want to think about again.
Starting the season 1-6-1, the Flyers decided to fire head coach Ken Hitchcock, while long-time General Manager Bob Clarke resigned.
As for Richards, it took him until December to score his first goal, and he ended the season without much progression, recording 10 goals and 22 assists.
In Pittsburgh, the tandem of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin started to light up arenas, bringing the Penguins back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Although they were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, Crosby was proving his critics wrong, winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, as well as the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer.
Crosby finished the season with 36 goals and 84 assists. In winning all of these awards at the age of 20, Crosby became the youngest player in NHL history to accomplish these feats.
Entering the 2007-2008 season, the Flyers were a question mark and the Penguins were a forced to be reckoned with.
However, '07-'08 was the season that officially started the Richards-Crosby rivalry, and one that will take us through the next decade.
After re-tooling their roster with the additions of Daniel Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Joffrey Lupul, and the gritty Jason Smith, the Flyers, who according to chairman Ed Snider, “do not re-build”, once again had high expectations.
However, no one saw what was coming next; the emergence of Mike Richards.
Richards led the Flyers in points in 2007-08 with 75, despite missing about three weeks of action late in the season. His play rewarded him with a 12-year, $69 million contract and a trip to Atlanta for the all-star game.
Besides scoring points, Richards provided plenty more for a Flyers team that would eventually reach the NHL’s Final Four, before being ousted by the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby is the more prolific scorer, but him and Richards are both very talented hockey players, and Richards intangibles sometimes outweigh Crosby’s scoring.
Richards is a much more physical and defensive player then Crosby as well, which doesn’t show up in the box score, but is a tremendously important aspect when guiding a team through the rigid NHL season.
When the teams met in last year’s conference finals, with the Penguins prevailing in five games, this team and individual rivalry really started to heat up.
When the 2008-09 season began, Richards was named the Flyers captain and many people wondered if Richards would continue his excellent play from the year before.
He currently leads the Flyers with 74 points and 46 assists, in addition to having a commanding league lead in short-handed goals with seven.
Once again Crosby leads Richards in points and assists, but they are both tied in goals.
Any hockey fan knows that points aren’t everything. Richards is the backbone of the both the Flyers power play and penalty kill, which are both ranked in the top six in the league. Richards also isn’t at all shy to drop the gloves or lay someone out, just ask Nikolai Zherdev of the New York Rangers.
Richards could very well be a finalist for this year’s Selke Award, which is given to the league’s top defensive forward.
"There's no question in my mind he's in that category (as best defensive forward) because we have him playing against the top players every night and he continues to kill penalties and produce offensively while playing big minutes," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He's as important to our team as a (Pavel) Datsyuk is to Detroit."
"He has a great understanding of the game at both ends of the ice and he works like a dog all the time; you have to in order to be considered a great defensive forward," said Bob Clarke. "The one other thing that makes him a complete player is the fact he's not a very easy guy to play against."
A perfect example of what Richards does on the ice that everyone may not see is the fact he and the Flyers held both Malkin and Crosby without a shot in Sunday’s 3-1 victory in Pittsburgh.
On the offensive side, the Flyers power play, led by Richards and Kimmo Timonen, has scored at least two goals in the Flyers current three-game win streak.
It’s very possible that Richards and Crosby could meet again in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
As of right now, the Flyers are fourth and the Penguins are sixth, just one point behind Carolina who is fifth.
Rest assured, if these two teams meet, it will only add a few bruises and memories to a rivalry that is just in its infancy.