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St. Louis wins it, but Richards saves season

JOHN ROMANO
Published June 6, 2004

CALGARY - For a change, he did not get the game-winner. That went to Martin St. Louis. Instead, Brad Richards will have to settle for the season-saver.

That's what it was, you know. That's what his performance in Game 6 on Saturday night meant to Tampa Bay.

He stood up when no one else was willing. He took shots when no one else could find an opening. He stayed around the Calgary net when no one else seemed eager to take the pounding that basic act required.

When pressed to the very edge of playoff extinction, Lightning players passed the puck to Richards and asked him to save them.

"He's become a big-time player," defenseman Dan Boyle said. "I guess everyone talks about him not scoring in the playoffs last year. That's far behind him. He's obviously a big-game player.

"He showed again tonight how much he wants to win and how big a heart he has."

Obviously, there were other stars.

There were other moments to savor.

Nikolai Khabibulin made two remarkable saves in overtime. Darryl Sydor stopped an early wraparound attempt that could have been pivotal. St. Louis found the net on his only shot of the game, more than 80 minutes after the first faceoff. Tim Taylor threw his body around like a shield.

But make no mistake, this was Richards' night. And should the Lightning win Game 7 on Monday, it will be his legacy.

Game after game, you kept expecting Vinny Lecavalier to respond to Jarome Iginla. You figured it would be the story line of the series. Calgary's star answers one night, and Lecavalier responds the next.

It wasn't until Game 6 that you figured out that it is Richards who has been Tampa Bay's answer.

Just as you cringe when the puck is on Iginla's stick, so do Calgary fans suck in their breath when Richards is on the ice.

And for that, he should never be forgotten.

It is the memory you should take from this season. The hope for future years. Even if Lecavalier frustrates, Richards will be there.

Soft players score in December. Rich players pad their stats in January. Great players show up in April, May and June.

Richards has been at his best when it has mattered most.

"I've put a lot of pressure on myself. I'm living and breathing this right now," Richards said. "I've matured. Hopefully, I've learned from my mistakes. I'm just trying to find a way right now. Find any way."

On the biggest night of their careers, Lightning forwards went missing for long stretches. St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko did not have a shot in regulation. Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Cory Stillman each had one.

Those are five of the six players on your first two lines, and they managed three shots among them in the first 60 minutes. Richards had four.

It has been this way for much of the postseason. Lecavalier has drifted in and out. Absent against New York, brilliant against Montreal and a nonfactor against the Flames. St. Louis has respectable numbers, but until the second overtime Saturday night, he had not been dependable at big moments. Dave Andreychuk at times has looked his age.

Only Richards has been there from beginning to end.

It is not simply that he has more goals than any Tampa Bay player in the postseason. It is the importance of each one. Of his four goals against the Flames, three have come with the score tied.

He stepped up on Tampa Bay's first power play Saturday night and deflected a sideways shot off Miikka Kiprusoff into the net. When the Flames tied it, Richards showed up again on the next power play and hit a diving shot past Kiprusoff after the puck came free from a scrum.

This was not what you expected. Not when the postseason began. This was supposed to be St. Louis' star turn after an MVP season. Or maybe Lecavalier's chance to prove he is not just a player of potential.

Richards had always been the co-star, never the headliner. The guy you noticed when rushing to see his more famous teammates. The greatest compliment he had heard was that he was the perfect complement.

It had been his forte, and his pleasure, to set up others. He has played four seasons with the Lightning, and in each one, he had roughly twice as many assists as goals. Until this year, he never had gone past 25 goals in a season.

Now, in the postseason, on the NHL's greatest stage, Richards has scored 12 goals in 22 games.

This from a player who once was considered a risky sign. Two years ago, at a time when he had 41 career goals in the NHL, the Lightning signed Richards to a three-year, $9.25-million contract.

"There were times when you didn't appreciate our guys because they were so young and so inexperienced. You didn't appreciate the talent Richards has," general manager Jay Feaster said. "There was such a hue and cry in certain quarters when we signed him to that contract. "How can you give this guy that type of contract at his age?' Everybody was wound up.

"We always saw his talent, and now you're seeing it on display."

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