After a wretched performance on home ice in Game 4 of the conference semifinals, the New York Rangers filed off the ice to a chorus of boos from the so-called Madison Square Garden faithful. A 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins left the Rangers in a 3-1 series hole and on the brink of expulsion from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The giant silver door that leads to the locker room was slammed shut as players undressed following their third straight loss. This is the time when a team's captain might say a few words, perhaps measured, perhaps fiery and passionate, but the Rangers have been without a captain since dealing Ryan Callahan at the trade deadline.
Coach Alain Vigneault did not name a captain in the wake of that trade, instead leaning on the ever-popular "leadership group" idea. But one player has been acting as the captain since early March without being named the acting captain—Brad Richards.
So when it came time to address the room in a players-only, closed-door meeting, it was Richards who spoke first.
"We had a talk as a group after that game in the room," said Marc Staal, one of three Rangers who wear the "A" along with Richards and Dan Girardi. "He spoke on being down 3-1 before…you just have to win one game and everything changes. And that's what we did. So he's been a big voice for us, for sure."
A lot has happened since that loss to the Penguins—the passing of Martin St. Louis' mother, the return to form of Chris Kreider—and the Rangers have won five of six games and stand two wins from the Stanley Cup Final since that meeting.
Leadership is perhaps the most difficult thing to quantify in sports. What makes a great leader? Is he a really good player who has a physical nature to his game? Is he well-spoken? Or is he simply just well-liked by the media, which offers a chance for a narrative to be engineered that wins him the silly Mark Messier Leadership Award, awarded to the captain who best exemplifies something?
Whether it's an inherent trait or one that is learned, Richards has it and his teammates gladly follow behind him.
Even with the trade of Callahan, the Rangers boast a very solid leadership core. Along with Richards, St. Louis and Rick Nash have served as captains in the past. Staal and Girardi are well-respected figures in the locker room, and Ryan McDonagh is very likely a captain in waiting for the 2014-15 season.
But when it's time to conference with the officials on the ice, it's Richards who handles that role. When it's time for something to be said on the bench or in the locker room, it's Richards who leads the charge in that regard. When it's time to answer for an ugly loss, it's Richards who stands there and answers question after question.
"I would say to you that even when Ryan was here, since day one, Brad has been without a doubt one of my top go‑to guys," Vigneault said to the media after practice on Wednesday. "He came here with a great attitude. He came here with great work ethic. He's been a really strong role model since day one since I've been here. I've really leaned on him and his experience.
"When Ryan left for Tampa, Brad was getting a very good friend (Martin St. Louis), so he helped, obviously, build that relationship with the rest of his teammates. But since the first day this year, he's been a really big part of our team on the ice and in the dressing room and off the ice."
Considering where Richards was within this organization nearly one year ago, it's somewhat surprising that he finds himself as the unofficial leader of this team.
With Richards struggling with fitness and skating during a lockout-shortened season, he was made a healthy scratch during the second round of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Before that, he was languishing on the fourth line, a far cry from the player who won the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
The Rangers had a difficult decision to make in the offseason—retain Richards or use an amnesty buyout on the final seven years of a nine-year, $60 million contract. The team announced that Richards would be staying for 2013-14 in what was a somewhat surprising decision, as the Rangers would be on the hook for cap-recapture penalties down the road should Richards retire before the expiration of the deal.
The 34-year-old responded with a bounce-back season by scoring 20 goals in 82 games and firing 259 shots on goal, the most since he was with the Dallas Stars in 2010-11. Still, his 0.62 points per game represent the lowest output of his career.
As he tends to do, however, Richards has saved his best for the playoffs. He has five goals—two game-winners—and 10 points in 17 games. That's actually below his regular-season points pace, but he's scoring more frequently.
It's the little things Richards does that don't show up on the scoresheet that have the biggest effect on the team, according to his teammates.
"Richie's been Richie," Brian Boyle said. "He hasn't changed much. He's shared his experiences with us. He's shared, in the past, the ups and downs with our last coach (John Tortorella) because he had him for a long time. He's been through it all. He's a great resource in that way.
"Now it's more of the same. He's been down this road. He's got Marty with him, and they've shared that experience together which I think gives him more of that voice, them two together. We've just all followed along from there. It's kind of by committee. We all want to be helpful and we all want to contribute in the room and on the ice and all that, but he's been a driving force."
Richards doesn't consider himself the captain—although if the Rangers win the Stanley Cup, you can bet your life savings he'll be the first player to hoist it skyward—and believes the group dynamic in the locker room is why the team has functioned so well without a captain.
"It just works," Richards said. "I don’t know how to explain it. We just make sure that things get done. I don’t think it’s any different than if you did or didn’t have a captain, especially this time of the year. If something needs to be said and someone thinks they need to say it, then you help out the best you can that way."
Only two teams in the history of the NHL have won the Stanley Cup without a captain—the 1970 and 1972 Boston Bruins.
"He's always been a vocal guy, even when Cally was here," Staal said of Richards. "I think he's been a lot more vocal in his absence. The amount of experience he has has really shown through in this run. It's been big for us."
The Rangers may not have a captain, but they certainly have a leader.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.
All statistics via NHL.com.
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