Mike Richards Paving Way for Flyers Back to Playoffs

Dan FremuthContributor IIIMarch 26, 2008

There are plenty of factors which have contributed to the Philadelphia Flyers dramatic turnaround following the worst season in franchise history. Certainly an offseason which included the arrivals of players like Danny Briere, Joffrey Lupul and Jason Smith helps. Improved stability between the pipes has been a welcome sight for the Flyers faithful. And one has to believe a full season behind the bench has helped grow coach John Stevens, which in turn, helps the Flyers. But, without a doubt, the biggest reason why the Flyers are now knocking on the playoff door instead of scheduling tee times (as they were a season ago) is the emergence of Mike Richards into a bona fide NHL superstar. It's fitting then that it was Richards who tallied the overtime game-winning goal Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden completing a come-from-behind 2-1 win for the Orange and Black which, for all intents and purposes, solidifies the Flyers claim as one of the top 8 teams in the Eastern Conference.

Consider where the Flyers, and Richards, were at this time last season. Philadelphia as a team was about to close out a 22-48-12 regular season, finishing dead last in the league and finalizing the worst season in their proud franchise. Richards, meanwhile, had produced only an average sophomore campaign, tallying 10 goals and 22 assists in just 59 games. In fact, entering this season, the 23-year-old center had recorded only 21 goals and 66 points in 138 NHL games. Hardly jaw-dropping numbers for a player slated as the next great Flyer. Fast forward, however, to the present and that projection seems spot on. Richards leads the Flyers in both assists (44) and points (71) while Philly's 39-28-10 record is good enough for 7th overall in the Eastern Conference. The Kenora, Ontario native has registered 33 power play points this season and it's been Richard's ability to quarterback the point on the Flyers man advantage that's helped Philly achieve the league's 2nd highest power play percentage (22.5%).

Richards, an All-Star for the first time this season, has also brought stability to a Flyers team that was void of any last season. Richards has tallied at least one point in 48 of his 68 games this season and has only gone back-to-back games without registering a point three times this season. Not surprisingly, the Flyers are 27-16-5 in games in which Richards appears on the offensive scoresheet.

Now some will argue that Philadelphia's 5-3-1 record in early March, while Richards was sidelined with a torn hamstring, is evidence contrary to his importance. And while it can't be denied that other players elevated their game without the All-Star, the true value of the franchise's centerpiece has been felt most since his return. In six games since returning from injury, Mike Richards has 4 goals, 1 assist and has spread that offense over 5 games. Most recently...that's right...that come-from-behind game-winning goal in New York. A goal that all but stamps Philly's presence back in the postseason. Just as Mike Richards has stamped himself among the NHL's elite.