Consider this failure a success

PHILADELPHIA -- What do they say about the best-laid plans?

When the New York Rangers reeled in Brad Richards in July, the expectation was the star center was finally the answer to get big-ticket winger Marian Gaborik going with more consistency.

Fast-forward five months later, and Gaborik is indeed playing his best hockey as a Ranger, and Richards has matched the hype of his signing with mostly stellar play. But the rub is that neither is playing with each other.

Go figure, right?

The Richards-Gaborik experiment had a very short shelf life earlier this season.

"Honestly, when I first saw it, after just a couple of days and a couple of games, I just didn't like it at all," said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. "I just -- it just didn't seem to work. There was really no chemistry. Now, who is to say it may happen later on, you never know what goes on, but we made that switch. It just worked."

There was Richards on Monday providing another clutch moment, scoring the game winner on the big stage in a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Winter Classic.

Tortorella's go-to pairing up front this season has been Richards and captain Ryan Callahan, with a rotating winger who has usually been Brandon Dubinsky.

That wasn't the original plan, but it's worked splendidly.

"I think guys didn't really know how good Brad is down low at cycling," Callahan said. "Guys like me and Dubie really try to hold onto pucks and create things off the cycle. Brad just seemed to fit right in there. I think if you put him with anybody, he's going to work and make that line better."

The big-ticket July signings have often had a way of backfiring on the well-heeled Rangers -- see Scott Gomez and Wade Redden, to name two -- with some players struggling under the weight of expectations brought by big money in the biggest of big markets. At issue over the years has been the Blueshirts trying to blindly cobble together a contender by just throwing money at the problem instead of patiently growing a core.

This is what makes the current Rangers stand out in many ways. They're largely a homegrown team, Callahan's boys, with the select free-agent additions such as Gaborik and Richards to put them over the top.

Richards had played in a pair of non-traditional markets, in Tampa and Dallas, before following his desire to join a more deep-rooted hockey community. But like any other splashy signing by the Original Six Rangers, one still had to see how the Prince Edward Island native would react after signing a nine-year, $60 million deal. There was no way of knowing until the puck dropped.

After a slow start to the season, Richards looks comfortable and confident. He's found his stride.
The 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is hardly new to the big stage, having also played in an Olympics and winning a Stanley Cup. Scoring the winner in the Winter Classic is another checkmark on his impressive résumé. He now has six game winners on the season, which leads the Rangers and is second in the NHL.

"It had that Game 7 type of feel today," Richards said. "Because you wanted so much to win it. …

"It's a lot better when you win it," he later added. "We would have forgotten about it pretty quickly and probably would have hated it [if we lost]. Now we can enjoy it for a day or two and think back on it. It was an amazing experience."

On the winner 5:21 into the third period, Richards pounced on a puck that ricocheted off Dubinsky and came directly to the Rangers center, whose trademark quick release was on the mark before Flyers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky had time to get across.

"It just came to me and I got lucky," Richards said. "A great memory for me."

Years ago growing up in Murray Harbour, P.E.I., Richards would brave the cold winters to skate on the outdoor ice near his place. Nothing like it. Like any Canadian kid, he'd envision scoring a big goal in the Stanley Cup finals. Never in his wildest dreams as a youngster did he think he'd score in an outdoor game with two NHL points in the standings on the line.

Of course, the elements were a little different in his childhood outdoor games than playing in front of 46,967 fans at Citizens Bank Park.

"A little warmer here," he laughed. "It was neat to see a little bit of snow there for a bit in the second period. Obviously it was a different feel, it's not what we're used to. It was a great feeling with the breeze and the wind, and then it got dark it gave a great setting. It's a great memory."

Looking back, Richards said, he'll remember just how big a stage this game was played on.

"Just the enormity of it all," he said. "It was an amazing feeling. I'll always remember it."

The way things are looking, it's unlikely it's going to be the last memory Richards will cherish from his first season on Broadway. The Rangers are for real, folks.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.