In his first season with the Blueshirts, Richards lived up to expectations by tallying 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 20 playoff games, including a memorable game-tying goal in Game 5 of his team's Eastern Conference semifinals series versus the Washington Capitals.
The Rangers need this type of performance from Richards in this year's playoffs if they are to make another deep run to the Eastern Conference finals or beyond.
This year has been a struggle at times for Richards, but he's starting to find a rhythm and produce offensively on a consistent basis in the final few weeks of the regular season. His skating has improved, and he's being physical along the boards to win puck battles, which is a really good sign.
As a catalyst for this team, it's no surprise that Richards' improved offensive production and the Rangers scoring more goals in April (3.6 per game compared to the team's season average of 2.6) have happened simultaneously.
Richards has put up 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 13 games this month (NYR has a 9-3-1 record in that span), including the first ever hat trick of his career (see video below) in New York's exciting 8-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres last week. Rangers head coach John Tortorella talked about his veteran after that win (via Rangers.com):
"When offensive guys get goals and produce offensively, it's good for them," said Tortorella. "Hopefully this will keep on helping (Richards') confidence at an important time of the year and keeps on going from there.
"He's been good all year long; he's a pro. He's been through a lot of the ups and downs. He knows that more is expected out of of him.
"As I've said all along, he's still made plays along the way, even though there's been some struggles."
Even as a veteran with a championship ring, the pressure of playing in a market like New York can affect a player like Richards. Playing good hockey going into the postseason does wonders for a player's confidence.
The Rangers did not score enough goals in the playoffs last year, but they were able to reach Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals because star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played very well with a .931 save percentage and a 1.81 GAA.
For this team to improve offensively in this year's playoffs, Richards needs to be a playmaker at even strength and on the power play. He's the most creative player on the roster and makes the wingers alongside him better. Without his scoring in a top-six role, the Blueshirts depth is greatly weakened.
The 32-year-old forward is tied for second on the team in assists with 21, eight of which have come in the month of April. Richards is also tied for second on the Rangers in power-play assists (six) and points (nine).
New York's power play was ranked near the bottom of the league earlier in the season, but it has improved over the last week. When the playoffs begin and teams start playing more defensively in 5-on-5 situations, taking advantage of power-play opportunities will be important for the Rangers.
They have converted on four of their 14 opportunities with the man advantage, and the team's power-play percentage in April (20.9) is better than its season average (16.0). Richards' resurgence offensively has positively affected the Blueshirts power play because his passing ability, vision and puck-handling skills create quality scoring chances.
Another aspect of the game that Richards must excel in during the postseason is faceoffs. He has won 50.7 percent of his faceoffs this year, but he's only at 50 percent on power-play draws. The Rangers rank 17th in faceoff percentage (50.1), which isn't terrible, but it's an area that the team needs to perform better in during the playoffs.
As a player with immense talent and a wealth of playoff experience, Richards will likely get a lot of ice time in the third periods of playoff games.
This means that he will take a lot of draws, and it's important that he wins more than half of them because New York has just one top-nine center (Richards) who wins 50 percent or more of his faceoffs. Derek Stepan (45.9) and Derick Brassard (48.4) have struggled in the faceoff circle and don't have much postseason experience.
Richards hasn't scored as many points as the Rangers and their fans would have expected from him in this shortened season, but he is more reliable in the playoffs than a young player such as Brassard.
He has 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) in 83 career playoff games at the NHL level, and his playoff resume also includes a Conn Smythe Trophy from the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup championship run, in which he tallied 26 points in 23 games.
For the Rangers to make a deep playoff run, they need scoring depth, and this won't happen unless Richards produces offensively. He's an integral part of the team's success in the attacking zone and impacts the offense in so many ways, whether it's scoring goals, creating chances for teammates in a playmaking role or winning faceoffs.
Aside from what he contributes to the stat sheet, Richards' presence in the locker room and his role as a leader on this team will be an important part of the Rangers' success in the playoffs.
He understands what kind of effort teams need to give in order to accomplish their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, and these kinds of veterans are so valuable to a club that has lots of players without championship rings.
Richards' recent scoring success has been one of many encouraging signs from the Rangers following the trade deadline. If his impressive performances extend into the playoffs, New York will be a tough team to beat in a seven-game series.
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