Will Mike Richards Be a Difference-Maker in Western Conference Final?

Eric McKelvieSenior Writer IMay 22, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 21:  Nick Leddy #8 of the Chicago Blackhawks checks Mike Richards #10 of the Los Angeles Kings in the second period of Game Two of the Western Conference Final during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center on May 21, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Once a top-six player each and every night, Los Angeles Kings center Mike Richards now suits up on the third or fourth line. This is a luxury 29 NHL teams wish they had.

But it’s only an advantage for the Kings if Richards is playing up to his potential. The Kings find themselves tied 1-1 with the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final. It's time Richards stepped up, not just in Games 6 and 7, but throughout the series.

The keys to victory will be outworking the opposing center, playing with more of a physical edge and finding his scoring touch.

The 29-year-old forward had a rough season by his standards. He notched just 11 goals and 30 assists for 41 points in 82 games. He didn’t offer the physical presence he has throughout his career.

So far in the playoffs, he has two goals and four assists for six points, his lowest point-per-game average since his rookie season.

Richards is a talented two-way player and respected leader who has won at just about every level. At the very least, he should be able to win the matchup against whatever center the Blackhawks put out against him.

According to Scott Burnside of ESPN.com, Trevor Lewis has this to say about his teammate:

He's a real leader on this team. I think he's probably used to playing more minutes and probably with more offensive players, but he's bought right in. And anything he can do to help the team, I think it's huge for him.

Through two games, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have appeared to cancel each other out. As you go to the depth chart and see Richards against less skilled and experienced players like Peter Regin and Marcus Kruger, that should be a definite advantage for L.A.

Regardless of whom his linemates are, Richards should play a big role in limiting Chicago’s time in the Kings’ zone, controlling the breakout and generating chances of the cycle.

He may have lost a step with age, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play physically. Richards has 30 hits in the playoffs, which ranks ninth on the team. That number needs to increase. He doesn’t need to lay a big open-ice hit every game, but small, clean hits along the boards in all three zones will make a big difference in wearing down Chicago in a long series.

Richards has had great success in the faceoff dot this postseason, a trend that must continue in this series. He’s won nearly 53 percent of his draws, which is crucial in allowing L.A. to win the possession battle.

This is especially important for Richards’ line in the offensive zone. It doesn't often take risks off the rush, so establishing pressure down low off a faceoff is essential for the group to create scoring chances. 

A little luck may have been involved in the Kings’ first goal in Game 2. Richards' quick decision to throw the puck in front of the net changed the momentum, as it hit Justin Williams’ skate and slid past Corey Crawford.

No one said it had to be pretty.

Richards just has to find a way to provide some secondary scoring for the Kings, whether it’s five-on-five or on the power play. Perhaps playing with Williams and Dwight King as he did in Game 2 will help him do so.

It could be a simple play like driving hard to the net, screening Crawford or making a pass across the ice. 

If he doesn’t find a way to have an impact offensively, a potential buyout of his contract in the offseason will likely become a hot topic in the hockey world.


Stats courtesy of NHL.com.