CHICAGO -- Brad Richards stopped assessing his game based on points as he aged.
Richards, 34, discovered as he got older that production wasn’t what allowed him to sleep well at night. There were games where he produced, but the points didn’t put his mind at ease because he knew his performance had been subpar.
Instead, Richards learned how to analyze his play differently. Production is still an important factor, but he delves further into it. He tries to comprehend what’s working, what’s not and why all that is. As Richards and the Chicago Blackhawks enter the final stretch of the regular season, he’s increased that self-analysis in order to get his game where he wants it to be at the most important time of the season.
“You can’t go home and worry about production,” Richards said. “You got to know where your game is at and keep building on that. Sometimes you can produce and you still go home and worry about how you played because you know if I play like that again, it’s not going to be pretty.
“Production is nice. Self-evaluation is the biggest thing. If you know how to self-evaluate, [you’ll be fine]. I think playing with [Patrick Kane], we’ve had a lot of talk of keep pushing each other and keep going. He doesn’t want to take any nights off. It’s nice to have a guy there dragging on you to go to battle.”
Honesty is an important element to Richards’ evaluation. It’s only natural to favor one’s own positives and find a way to skew the negatives. He looks for the good and the bad.
When Richards put his play under that microscope recently, he didn’t like what he saw. The production hadn’t been there -- he was stuck on one point for much of February -- and he knew something was off. It didn’t take watching much video for him to realize his skating was deterring him.
“I think for a while there I stopped skating a little bit and was watching and just thinking too much,” Richards said. “I know in my career when I struggle, it’s probably because I’m not skating, not being on the puck, stuff like that. We’re all human. Sometimes you’re just looking at it different and it’s right there in front of you. You got to skate. Sometimes it’s as simple as that and things will come back to where they should be.”
Aware of the issue, Richards began doing something about it. Over the last week and a half, Richards has been more mindful of his movements on the ice. He’s pushed himself to skate more and get more involved in the play.
The change in mentality hasn’t exactly paid off in points yet -- Richards has one point after seven games of an eight-game homestand -- but he’s witnessed progress. How his line, which often includes Kane and sometimes Kris Versteeg or Patrick Sharp, hasn’t accounted for multiple goals recently has baffled him.
“The last couple games has been feeling where it was earlier in the year where we’re finding each other,” said Richards, who also thought he had to be more aggressive in shooting. “It feels a little bit snake-bitten the last couple games, especially the last couple first periods where it feels like we could have had two or three to get the team going. But that’s life. You got to keep doing the right things, the details. I think our creativity will take over.”
Creativity and offensive playmaking have been common traits that helped Richards bond with Kane this season. When Richards signed with the Blackhawks on one-year deal in July, Kane immediately thought back to a game his rookie season in 2008 where Richards registered five assists against Chicago. The offensive possibilities came rushing to Kane.
Kane and Richards haven’t had such a game yet, but they’ve been good together. After having to wait until the 17th of the game to be put on a line together, they’ve given Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville little reason to separate them since. Kane is tied for a league-leading 64 points, and 24 of his 33 5-on-5 points have come with Richards on the ice. It’s the most 5-on-5 points Kane has had with another forward since producing 26 points with Patrick Sharp in the 2011-12 season and 32 points with Jonathan Toews in the 2009-10 season.
“He’s been a real nice find for a second-line center,” said Kane, who has become good friends with Richards while living in the same downtown building and often driving places together. “It’s been fun. We’ve had some different wingers on that left side, but us two have pretty much been together the whole time. I think we kind of have the same mind for the game. We want to play the same way. We want to be creative. We want to do well every night. We want to create chances. It’s been good. I think he’s been kind of happy where he’s at as far as the style of play we’ve been playing. We’re trying to improve every game.”
Kane believed Richards was helping him learn on and off the ice.
“He’s been great in opening up to me and trying to help me, too,” Kane said. “I still feel like I can get better. I still feel like I’m a young guy trying to improve. He’s helped me that way, too.
“He's very smart, not just hockey-wise. He's smart about society and the world generally. He’s a bright mind. He carries that over to the ice, too. You see what he does with the puck when he’s on the ice and how he thinks the game”
One Western Conference scout has noticed Richards playing at a different level this season. While the scout acknowledged Richards doesn’t skate as he once did, he thought playing with Kane has been beneficial for him.
“He looks re-energized and motivated while playing with Patrick Kane on his wing,” the scout said.
Quenneville especially liked what he saw from Richards in practice on Monday. Richards will play with Sharp and Kane on the second line against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
“I thought [Monday] it looked like he was skating better, moving better and that line looked like they had some jump,” Quenneville said. “I think everybody has stretches where they're OK or ordinary, but that line had that one stretch where they were really productive, really effective. It seemed like there was more pace across the board on that line, and we’re looking to recapture that.”
And that’s what Richards wants, too.
"I think the last couple games have been the right step," Richards said. "We all want more. I want more. Because of the situation we’re in, we need wins here. We’re coming down the stretch. Hopefully that will be just in time to push this team."