What a week for the Dallas Stars. Two stirring come-from-behind victories, both set in motion by the strong play of centre Brad Richards, who contributed five points in the victories over Pacific Division rivals Anaheim and San Jose - momentum-building wins for the Stars, difficult-to-digest losses for the clubs that they'll be battling all season long for an NHL playoff berth.
After a 91-point season last year, Richards has inched up into a tie for sixth in the NHL scoring race with Daniel Sedin, only a point behind Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin (with two games in hand) and only two back of his former running mate in Tampa, Martin St. Louis.
With Richards and Mike Ribiero as a one-two punch down the middle, and emerging youngsters James Neal and Loui Eriksson as Richards' linemate, it looks as if Dallas will stay in the playoff contention this season, despite ongoing ownership issues that leave Joe Nieuwendyk in managerial limbo, unable to commit to - among other things - keeping Richards around for the long term.
But if the uncertainty over his future in Dallas is bothering him at all, it doesn't show in Richards's play. He has been the consummate professional for going on two years now, more in the Joe Sakic than Mario Lemieux vein, finding the gaps in the defence with precision passing, making plays for his linemates and generally providing the Stars with that consistent point-per-game production required from a No. 1 centre.
Of course, that's the issue in the longer term. Richard's contract - for $7.8-million per season on a deal he originally signed with the Tampa's coming out of the lockout - expires in July, and some time between now and then, the Stars need to figure out if they can afford to re-sign him, or if they need explore trade options. Richards's absence would create an enormous hole in the Stars' lineup - and as the games click off the calendar, his status will become even more of a distraction, not less.
For now, says Richards, he is concentrating on hockey and taking it on faith that the rest takes care of itself.
"I kinda look at it, whatever happens, it's going to be a good thing either way," said Richards, in an exclusive interview. "If it's a new beginning, it's a new beginning. If I get to stay here, I get to stay here. I'm very fortunate with what's happening in my life and my career. So whatever happens, I'll deal with it as we go along."
Curiously, Richards's exit from Tampa also followed an ownership kerfuffle - when Oren Koules and Len Barrie took over from William Davidson, who was at the helm when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004 (and Richards was selected playoff MVP).
"Day-to-day, I've been through it before," said Richards. "Unfortunately, it (ownership instability) has kind of followed me around a little bit.
"But it is a lot different here. It's not a distraction. Joe (general manager Nieuwendyk) has done a good job of keeping it away from us. In Tampa, it was in our face every day and it was a lot different. This has been an us-only mentality and Joe's done a good job of keeping it separate and we haven't really talked about it.
"It probably might affect me more than anybody."
It really does affect Richards more than anybody else because of his expiring contract - and wouldn't a team in need of a legitimate No. 1 centre be lining up to acquire his rights, if the Stars ever do get orders to move him?
For Richards, getting healthy again is one reason why he is back to scoring above a point-a-game clip for the second year in a row. But the other factor, he says, is just the passage of time - time he needed to adjust to his new surroundings, after being dug in with the Lightning for the first seven years of his career, and playing there with Vincent Lecavalier, a friend all the way back to their junior days together.
"A couple of years there were really tough," acknowledged Richards. "The change is what really got to me. It was a lot tougher leaving than I thought it would be. I was pretty engrained over there. You got your best friends and winning a championship, so ...
"But it helps getting a little stability with linemates and structure. It's a lot different feel than last year. We're getting our chances to win games."
MORE STAR GAZING: Nieuwendyk took a calculated risk this earlier this year when he acquired Kari Lehtonen from the Atlanta Thrashers as his goalie of the future and permitted long-time stalwart Marty Turco to leave as a free agent. Lehtonen's career to date has been plagued by injuries and inconsistencies, but he's been good for the Stars so far, and according to Nieuwendyk, has bought into everything the team is trying to sell him in terms of conditioning and preparation.Report Typo/Error