For the past couple of weeks now, Brad Richards could envision the inevitable: If the Chicago Blackhawks made it to the Stanley Cup final, there would be a homecoming of sorts for Richards.
Either he would face the New York Rangers, the team he played for last year and helped get to the Stanley Cup final, where they ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Kings, or he'd be up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team on which he cut his professional teeth and won the 2004 Stanley Cup, along with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff's most valuable player.
Richards, along with Vincent Lecavalier and Dan Boyle, was a central figure on that Lightning team, though the reality is this: There is not a single player remaining from the roster he left in 2008, only a handful of staff plus Dave Andreychuk, who was the captain in 2004 and is now the team's vice-president of community and corporate affairs.
Still, there are many great memories and a lot of history in Tampa, most of it good. Only the ownership uncertainty toward the end stained the experience.
"I grew up as a player and an adult human being there," Richards was saying after the Blackhawks' victory over Anaheim Saturday night put Chicago in the Stanley Cup final for the third time in the past six seasons.
"I have a lot of great friends still in the organization. I'm very happy the organization is back on track and doing what they're doing down there. It's going to be special – but I want to win, so we'll worry about friendships later."
Richards's closest on-ice ties to the Lightning organization are to defenceman Anton Stralman and centre Brian Boyle, who played with him in New York last season. They left because of the Rangers' salary-cap crunch, which was also responsible for New York's decision to issue Richards a compliance buyout in the summer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
At this stage of his career, Richards was most interested in an opportunity to win. Thankfully, the Blackhawks – though facing their own payroll issues – needed help down the middle to replace Michal Handzus and made him an offer.
"I was lucky enough that Stan [Bowman, the Blackhawks' general manger] called and wanted to work something out," Richards said. "I knew the salary cap was tough. As much as I was willing to do stuff, they had to do some manoeuvring, and they had to call me.
"I'm thankful this great organization did that. I was not down on my luck, exactly, but after losing in the final and getting bought out, it's a tough feeling. You perk up pretty quick when the Chicago Blackhawks call. It got me excited again and started thinking about possibilities – and here we are."
The Blackhawks' biggest edge over the Lightning will be their playoff experience, which Richards believes made a difference in the semi-final win over the Ducks. Experience didn't help the Rangers against Tampa, however.
"I'd rather have it than not," Richards said. "There's always a team that has to gain it some time and win one some time, but when you get into these situations and you're used to it, I think it just breeds more confidence. You don't get those 'What if?' thoughts. You're just used to doing it, and you don't think about if something could go the other way."
Richards plays more of a secondary role with the Blackhawks than he did 11 years ago with Tampa Bay, though he is integral to the power-play success as the right point man. And while Richards played much of the season alongside Patrick Kane, coach Joel Quenneville shuffled his lines toward the end of the series against the Ducks, putting Jonathan Toews with Kane and leaving Richards to play with Bryan Bickell and Marian Hossa.
Strategically, Quenneville is not averse to switching up the lines again to get the matchups he wants – and that'll be one of the more interesting calls to make. Does he try to get Toews out against Steven Stamkos or Tyler Johnson?
Richards said he's fine however it goes, if it gets him another ring, noting that playing with Hossa is a pretty good alternative when Kane moves up the depth chart to play with Toews.
"That's what's great about this team – if it helps to change the balance, we're all trying to pull in the same direction," Richards said. "Whatever works."