NEW YORK — When the New York Rangers discussed buying out the contract of Brad Richards over the summer after an abysmal season that ended with the 33-year-old sitting as a healthy scratch during the postseason, they decided to bring him back with the expectation that he'd be motivated again, would rediscover his form and be a force in the 2014 NHL playoffs.
It's only been one game, but Richards rewarded the team's faith in Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Richards broke a 1-1 tie with a power-play goal midway through the third period, then set up Derek Stepan for another goal on the back end of a four-minute power play 47 seconds later as the Rangers grabbed a 4-1 victory and 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series with the Flyers.
Richards had a goal and two assists in the final 12 minutes of the third period to break open a game the Rangers thoroughly dominated despite being unable to find a second goal for nearly 40 minutes.
When the chips were down, the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner delivered once again for the Rangers.
"That's why he's here," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "He obviously is an experienced player that's been through the wars before. I expected him to share his knowledge and bring that to the table every night for his teammates.
"He had a real good game, both ends of the ice. On the power play, he made two really great plays that permitted us to score both of those goals."
After a 2013 season in which Richards looked like he was skating in quicksand and his production and play wasn't to the liking of then-coach John Tortorella, Richards was playing fourth-line minutes in the first round against the Washington Capitals before being phased out completely as a healthy scratch for the final two games of the second round against the Boston Bruins.
Richards, who scored several big goals during the Rangers' run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, was suddenly in danger of having the final seven years of his nine-year, $60 million contract bought out during the 2013 offseason.
It was a meteoric fall for a player who was signed in 2011 to make the Rangers a legitimate contender.
"I don't really need to talk much about last year," said Richards with a sigh as he adorned the Broadway Hat, which is given by the team to the game's most valuable player. "It's different. I've had lots of good years. No need to talk about one bad one."
Richards didn't just come through during that four-minute power play against the Flyers—he was strong at five-on-five as well. According to ExtraSkater.com, Richards finished the game with a 58.6 Corsi percentage (17-12) and added an assist on Carl Hagelin's insurance goal with 4:08 remaining in the third period.
"It's one game and he knows that; it's a long series here," said Ryan McDonagh, who wasn't at his best in his first game back after a two-week absence with a shoulder injury, finishing as one of just four Rangers with a negative Corsi percentage in the game. "It's a great start by him, for sure. But we have no doubt in his ability and what he brings to this team. He's proven it so far here in Game 1, and he wants more.
"He came in (this season) with a great attitude, worked really hard to give himself the best opportunity to make things happen, to make an impact here. I don't think anybody doubted what he means to this team. He's proven it here. He started off this playoffs with a bang and we need it to continue. He knows that. We just have to build on this."
If the Rangers continue to dominate at five-on-five like they did in Game 1, they likely won't need late-game heroics from Richards over the rest of the series. It was a bloodbath on par with The Red Wedding at even strength in this contest, as the Rangers won the overall Corsi battle 69-42 (62.2 percent) and the Fenwick battle 47-26 (64.4 percent).
That's the type of one-sided contest that requires a goaltender to stand on his head to give a team a chance when so much of the game is spent at one end of the ice. Ray Emery fought valiantly and the Flyers did a good job of keeping shots to the outside for the most part, but when one team has possession of the puck as much as the Rangers, that usually leads to the other team falling victim to bounces and taking penalties while in pursuit of the puck.
The game-changing four-minute high-sticking penalty taken by Flyers rookie Jason Akeson that left Hagelin with a swollen upper lip was a spot of bad luck, but that's what happens when you're chasing the frozen rubber disc all night long.
The Rangers' speedy forwards proved too quick for the lumbering Flyers defense, which exited its own zone with all the ease of a mouse with an inner ear infection trying to find its way through a maze.
Richards was the beneficiary of all that attack time and the unfortunate mistake by Akeson, but this was a game the Rangers controlled from start to finish and deserved to win.
"I think we controlled play, didn't give them much but probably played a little too much on the outside at times, but that happens," Richards said. "There was no other thought than to keep controlling the puck and keep trying to get it behind them. In a series, sometimes having the puck and wearing them out can benefit you later in the game. That was our main goal.
"We would like to get more pucks to the net and we'll try to do that."
The Rangers outshot the Flyers 36-15 on Thursday. If they improve on that total in Game 2, the Flyers could use Emery and Steve Mason at the same time and the outcome won't be any different than what happened at Madison Square Garden in Game 1.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
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