NEW YORK -- Brad Richards spent the last two games of the Rangers’ playoff run last spring in the most undesirable spots imaginable for an NHL player, let alone a well-respected veteran.
Having already suffered through the indignity of being relegated to the fourth line, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner was then forced to watch helplessly from Boston’s TD Garden press box as the New York Rangers’ 2013 season came to an unceremonious end in the team's second-round series against the Boston Bruins.
Richards doesn’t like to talk about last year, but you can bet that painful experience was on his mind heading into the Rangers’ playoff set against the Philadelphia Flyers this week.
And judging by his performance in Thursday’s series opener at Madison Square Garden, he won’t have to worry about spending any more time watching from above.
“I really don’t need to talk about last year,” Richards said. “I’ve had lots of good years. I don’t need to talk about one bad one.”
The 33-year-old center led the way for the Blueshirts to take Game 1 against the Flyers, 4-1. He scored the go-ahead goal and picked up two assists in a critical third period that was the difference against their Metropolitan Divisional foes, who have now lost nine consecutive games at MSG.
With Flyers rookie Jason Akeson in the box for a double-minor high-sticking penalty, Richards snapped a 1-1 tie at 8:22 of the third period, beating Flyers goaltender Ray Emery after the backup netminder’s otherwise-solid effort for the majority of the game. Richards then crafted a beautiful feed to hit center Derek Stepan back-door for another man-up marker less than a minute later.
“One goal was huge, but to be able to go back out there and get the other one, obviously that won us the game,” Richards said.
Richards, who was a prime buyout candidate last summer (and still might be with the whopping cap penalties his contract poses), has delivered an inspired response to last season’s letdown. After posting the ninth 20-goal season of his career, Richards started his 2014 playoffs strong with a three-point night against the Flyers.
“It’s huge. And he’s been doing it pretty consistently in big games this year when we need it,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “It’s great to see him step up and you can tell the way he’s hungry for more. And we’re going to need more out of him, too.”
Vigneault had to be encouraged by more than just Richards’ superior play. His team controlled the game against the Flyers, gaining the territorial edge early and dominating from a puck-possession standpoint throughout.
The Rangers, who finished among the top six NHL teams in both Corsi and Fenwick ratings (according to ExtraSkater.com), asserted themselves at home and didn’t deviate from their strength. This is no longer your John Tortorella Rangers. Instead, this is a Blueshirts squad that derives its identity from playing a style that exploits their collective speed and skill.
“When we play fast, when we go north-south quick, we are tough to handle,” Vigneault said. “That’s what we did tonight and that’s why we were able to have a pretty good game.”
Flyers coach Craig Berube wasn’t happy with what his team put forth, particularly after the first period. The forecheck faltered, their top line was ineffective, and their discipline clearly went out the window in the final frame.
“I didn’t feel we skated well enough in any of the periods,” Berube said.
Even after being outplayed through two periods, the Flyers did have a prime opportunity to take the lead and flirt with stealing Game 1 when McDonagh took a high-sticking penalty early in the third period.
That penalty put the NHL’s most dangerous power-play road unit (25.2 percent success rate during the regular season) on the ice with the game tied at 1. However, the Flyers were held without a single shot on goal, which prompted a boisterous response from the New York crowd.
The ineptitude extended beyond special teams as well. Both Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, the most potent tandem on the Flyers’ top line, finished without a shot the entire night.
"They didn’t produce. They didn’t shoot pucks. They didn’t get shots on net. They didn’t attack," Berube said. "We weren’t getting enough action at the net."
Berube didn’t treat Akeson with kid gloves, either. When asked about the rookie’s costly mistake, he was blunt in assessing the game-changing power-play that resulted when Akeson lost control of his stick and cut Hagelin in the mouth.
“He’s got to be better with his stick.” Berube said.
Akeson played a solid game -- only the third of his NHL career -- but he won’t remember it that way. After the game, he said his teammates tried their best to pick him up after the devastating gaffe.
"They all had my back and they were all saying that it’s a seven-game series and you’ll forget it [easily]," Akeson said. "That’s the beauty of this sport. There are six more games that we can win. It’s not down to one game. We are just going to look forward to the next one."
That will be this Sunday, which will again be at MSG. Will Emery be back between the pipes for the injured Steve Mason? Mason appears to be making progress in his recovery from an upper-body injury sustained last Saturday, though his status for Game 2 remains uncertain.
Regardless of who is in net, the Rangers will be ready.
"Philly is going to come hard," said Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, who scored the Rangers' first goal. "We have to try and play the same way."