After an off-day practice near the end of the regular season, Brad Richards and his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates were in a jovial mood in the locker room. The previous evening, Richards scored a goal in an overtime shootout against the Atlanta Thrashers to give the Lightning a 3-2 victory. The win virtually locked up an Eastern Conference playoff spot for the Bolts and killed the Thrashers’ playoff hopes.
"These types of wins are fun," said Richards. The goal against the Thrashers was his fourth game winner in a shootout this season. And it gave the Lightning something it had lacked for much of the regular season: confidence.
This club, even with five players who tallied 20 or more goals, somehow managed to under perform much of the season. As the defending Stanley Cup champions, they were expected to easily accumulate enough points to finish first in the Southeast Division and challenge for home-ice advantage for the playoffs. Instead, the Carolina Hurricanes won the division and finished second to the Detroit Red Wings for most points in the 30-team National Hockey League. (The Ottawa Senators added to the Lightning’s disappointment with a first-round playoff victory over the Bolts in five games.)
The Lightning players were upbeat as they prepared for the playoffs. For the final month of the regular season, their won-lost-tied record was one of the best in the league. One of the reasons for this was the stellar play of Brad Richards.
On a team that played erratically this season, Richards was the Lightning's most consistent player. He was the team leader in assists (68), short-handed goals (4) and points (91). At one point, he had scored a goal or registered an assist in 68 percent of Tampa Bay’s games. Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella knows how reliable Richards is and gave the five-year NHL veteran more than 22 minutes of ice time a game this past season.
After Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis had great seasons during the Lightning's Stanley Cup run two years ago and signed multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts to remain with the Bolts, they were expected to lead the team in 2005-06. For various reasons, that did not happen. Instead, Richards became the quiet leader of the team.
"I don't set goals in my mind for how many goals or assists I want before a season starts," said Richards. "I just want to keep improving."
Richards has improved as a penalty killer and now finds himself, along with Tim Taylor, logging regular ice time when the Lightning is shorthanded. Richards also is a member of the team’s No. 1 power play unit, usually setting up along the blue line. "I've always played the point out there and I like it. I get to see the entire ice and see which players are doing what," stated the native of Montague, Prince Edward Island.
"Competing and what it takes to win are two things that I've learned since I've been here (in the NHL). I had an idea of those things when I was younger, but I didn't really realize how intense both of those things are in the NHL."
Richards is a different person from three years ago. There now is an inner toughness to this personable man that most people don’t detect at first. Perhaps going through four tough playoff rounds with the Lightning in 2003-04, and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ Most Valuable Player in the process, has toughened him.
Not that Brad Richards would care. Although described as a “student of the game” by Tortorella in a newspaper article in the spring, Richards seems to be one of the least self-analytical players on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Perhaps that is the secret of his success.
Richards, who would have become an unrestricted free agent this summer, in May signed a five-year, $39 million contract with the Lightning.