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.
Turco, meanwhile, says the move to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks has been relatively seamless.
Like Richards, Turco reiterated a point that few ever focus on. When you're settled in a city, with family comfortable in their surroundings, sometimes it is hard to pull up stakes and move on.
"The thought of change is a little daunting," said Turco. "You've been somewhere so long and you have a big truckload as I do - with three kids, two in school - you develop some big roots. That alone created some anxieties and anxious moments, but I can honestly say that this organization, from the get-go, made me feel a part of the family and what they want to do.
"After what they've done in the past three years, there's no place else you'd rather be."
PHOENIX RISING: The Stars' Pacific Division rivals, the Phoenix Coyotes, are involved in their own ongoing ownership drama, but after an iffy start, are starting to win games again - four in a row heading into tonight's date with the slumping Oilers. Under coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix's recipe for success doesn't vary much. They put defence ahead of offence and rely on goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who picked up another shutout this past week. In the early going, the Coyotes were mostly trying to sort out their defence corps, after losing the underrated Zbynek Michalek to Pittsburgh as a free agent in the off-season.
No stat tells you more about a player's relative importance to a team than time on ice and Michalek led the team in ice time during its 107-point 2009-10 as part of a shutdown pair alongside Ed Jovanovski. Michalek's steadiness was missed - and as much as the Coyotes like the potential of rookie Oliver Ekman-Larsson, they figured he would be better off playing some games in the minors to adjust to the North American style.
According to Tippett, the expectation internally is that the sale of the Coyotes will go through to Chicago financier Matthew Hulsizer relatively soon, and at that juncture, maybe the crowds will come back. Apart from an opening-night crowd of 17,125 for the Detroit Red Wings and a decent 14,642 to see Crosby and the Penguins, the Coyotes have been playing to half-filled buildings again. Two crowds were in the 6,000 range; two others in the low 8,000s. But according to Tippett, there does appear to be an end coming to their ownership drama.
"Everybody recognizes the reality of what's going on," said Tippett. "There's a new owner that is close to being in place, and so we can't control that right now. We don't talk about it, but in the back of everybody's mind, we hope things stabilize and move forward - so that your fans are saying, 'they're staying, this is good,' and the corporate people start jumping on board and you start to build. Right now, we're hopefully in the latter stages of that.
"But you're right, it tests the mental capacity of our team. As coaches, we try to distract them with how we're playing."
Tippett laughed as he delivered that last sentence because it's true - how the Coyotes play is one thing they can control.
In the meantime, they find hope where they can.
Phoenix's third biggest crowd of the season came last week when 11,117 watched them defeat Calgary, with a lot of visiting Flames' fans in the building, taking in the game.
"My wife said to me, 'I kinda like it when Pittsburgh or Calgary comes in because they've got lots of fans because it stirs up our fans,'" said Tippett. "It makes the atmosphere in the building very good. So we've had some nights when it's been very exciting in there. Hopefully, as this pushes on, very much like last year, in the second half of the season, we'll start to get more and more of those crowds.
"The other part of the bottom line is, we have to do our job on the ice. We have to make sure we're a competitive team. Every night when your fans come to the rink, they want to know you have a chance to win."
And that is the one thing they can control.
"Exactly - and there can be no excuses for that, because we've done it before and we can do it again."
AND FINALLY: Jonathan Bernier was the goalie of record when the Sharks beat the Los Angeles Kings Monday night, and gave up six goals. Lots of people figured Bernier would eventually take the job from Quick by season's end, but that hasn't happened yet. Bernier is just 2-3, with a 3.01 GAA, while Quick has been sensational - 10-2, with a 1.52 GAA and he's giving fellow American Tim Thomas of Boston a run for early Vezina Trophy consideration. People forget Quick won 39 games in the NHL last season and that doesn't happen by accident. If Quick were to somehow win the Vezina, that'd be three in a row for three different American netminders - Thomas and Buffalo's Ryan Miller won the last two. U.S. goalie production is starting to rival and even outstrip Finland and Quebec, but quietly and with not all that much notice.