It's all about heart for Brad Richards

NEWARK, N.J. -- His shot isn't the hardest.

His legs aren't the fastest.

And his hands might not be the softest.

So what is it that allows New York Rangers center Brad Richards to routinely pull off the heroic?

Let's call it something like heart, because when the Rangers have absolutely, positively needed an important offensive play this spring, Richards has invariably been at the heart of that play.

It is not just uncanny, it is downright spooky.

It was so again on Saturday afternoon in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

After splitting the first two games of the series, the Devils and Rangers were tied going into the third period for the third straight game, this time it was a scoreless game. A couple strong early shifts by Richards' line generated quality scoring chances, including one Richards shot that bounced off the crossbar behind New Jersey Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, which Richards initially believed had gone in the net.

Shortly after, the Rangers drew a penalty. On the ensuing power play, Richards cleanly won the draw from Patrik Elias and sent it back to Dan Girardi, who hammered home what would prove to be the winning goal in a 3-0 Rangers victory.

The Rangers now lead the Devils 2-1 in the conference finals with Game 4 set for Newark on Monday night.

"Last game we came into the period tied and they kind of stormed us in the third period and got a goal right away," Richards said Saturday. "We talked about that that wasn't going to happen tonight. We didn't know if it was going to happen our way but we didn't want them to come out and jump on us again."

Like Game 1 -- also won by the Rangers 3-0 thanks to three third-period goals -- Game 3 was up for anyone's taking.

New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer wasn't prepared to concede that those early shifts were difference-makers.

"When you lose a game like this, where we out-chance and outplay the other team for long stretches, easy to look at it under a microscope and say, 'Oh, boy, they played two great shifts here and that was the difference in the game,'" he said.

"We strung together six or seven great shifts. We didn't capitalize on it. That's the story of the game. So, you know, we had opportunities. If we find a way to score one in the first two periods, it's a different game. We didn't. Can't feel sorry for yourself, you've got to move on."

He's right, but on this day the clutch players for the Devils -- Ilya Kovalchuk, who missed a number of glorious chances, and captain Zach Parise -- did not deliver.

Richards did.

There's always danger when you sign a big-time free agent with the anticipation he can replicate his glorious history. History tells you he is capable of greatness, but there are never any guarantees such greatness will be replicated.

The Rangers, who fended off competition from teams such as Toronto, Calgary and Los Angeles to sign Richards to a nine-year, $60 million contract last July, are getting exactly what they'd hoped from the 32-year-old native of Prince Edward Island.

The man who won a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2004 is tied for fourth among all NHLers with 13 points. He leads the league in power-play points in the playoffs with eight and is tied for fourth with six playoff goals.

"His vision is extraordinary," national analyst and longtime NHL netminder Glenn Healy told ESPN.com. "He makes plays that you don't expect, that you don't anticipate. He's a game-breaker for sure."

Healy won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994 playing with one of the best game-breakers in the history of the game, Mark Messier.

On a team that has now gone 16 straight games without scoring more than three times in any contest, Richards acts as a human counterbalance, constantly tipping the scales in the Rangers' favor.

He scored a crucial power-play goal against Ottawa when the Rangers needed to win two games in a row to stay alive in the first round. In the second round against Washington, he set up the triple-overtime winner in Game 3, scored to tie Game 5 with 6.6 seconds left in regulation and then scored one of the Rangers' two goals in Game 7.

Now he adds his key assist in Saturday's Game 3 to that list of clutch performances.

Not that this has all been a bowl of cherries for Richards, who began his NHL career in Tampa playing for his current coach, John Tortorella.

"I've known him since he was a kid," Tortorella said Saturday. "You could see that he had that intangible as a young player. He makes big plays at big times.

"Obviously, we went after him pretty hard during the summer. And again, it hasn't [been] smooth for him. He has had some struggles along the way here in the regular season and in the playoffs. ... I don't think he played that well in the first two games of this series but found a way to get involved in some big stuff tonight. And not only offensively, he made some big defensive plays at key times."

Richards obviously relishes these moments, this stage, and that isn't lost for a moment on his teammates.

"He's a leader, that's just the way it is. He's probably been the go-to guy his entire life," said linemate Carl Hagelin, who has played with Richards and Marian Gaborik for most of this postseason.

"He's always that guy you look up to when it's a close situation, when it's a tie, when it's overtime. He seems to play his best hockey when the game is on the line."

Captain Ryan Callahan said Richards' play reinforces why the Rangers felt it was so important to bring him into the fold last summer.

"It's huge for our team," Callahan said. "I think that's one of the main reasons why we bring him in here. He's won a Cup before. He knows what it takes. He plays big in these situations. To have a guy in here that you know is going to step up in a big moment or score that big goal, it gives the whole room confidence. You know he's there to make that big play."

Callahan collected an assist on the Rangers' second goal and scored into an empty net in Game 3.

For Richards, the challenge of being able to elevate, to deliver in the moments that help decide a team's playoff fate, is a powerful motivator.

"They get bigger and better and they're more fun," Richards said. "It's just the way it is because you see the window closing and you need wins or it's over. I don't think it's just me. I think there's a lot of players that know these games are a great opportunity. I look at them as just fun opportunities, nothing more than that.

"When it's over I'll never have anything like it again to be able to feel that feeling. We talk about that in here with our young guys. It's the best thing you can have as a hockey player is playing in these games. Win or lose they're always fun, better when you win, obviously."

Just don't try to get him to discuss what it is that allows him his current standing as Mr. Clutch of the Rangers.

"Yeah, I don't know," Richards responded. "That's for you to write about. I'm not going to talk about that. I don't want to jinx it."