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An afterthought no more

Unheralded Brad Richards wins the Conn Smythe award for MVP.

Published June 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

TAMPA - He always has been the "other guy."

When people talked about the Lightning, they talked about Vinny Lecavalier, you know, the No. 1 pick. They talked about Martin St. Louis. After all, he's probably going to win the league MVP this season.

Always the afterthought was Brad Richards, the little guy from the little province of Prince Edward Island. He wasn't the top pick. He isn't the league MVP. He isn't known as the star.

He never talked big. Or loud. Or often. That's not him.

What is he? Only the Conn Smythe winner for being the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. With his parents - lobster fishermen in the Great White North - watching from the stands with tears in their eyes, commissioner Gary Bettman handed Richards the trophy after being selected by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

The little kid from the PEI in the biggest hockey tournament in the world was the best player in the world.

"It doesn't matter where you are from," Richards said. "This is unbelievable."

As the playoffs progressed, Lightning players took turns being the star. Richards, though, was always the sidekick until he did it so often, he became the superhero of the postseason.

Richards showed up in every round.

In the first-round series against the Islanders, Richards had a goal and four assists in five games.

In the sweep of Montreal in the second round, Richards went back to where he played junior hockey and, along with old junior teammate Lecavalier, put on a show for his adopted hometown. He had three goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3, and an assist.

Then against the Flyers, Richards showed all his critics, the ones who hounded him since his days in junior hockey. Too soft, they said. They discounted his astounding offensive numbers in juniors because he played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, considered the least physical of the three major junior leagues.

But against the rough-housing Flyers, Richards arrived. In seven grinding games full of bone-crunching hits, Richards scored four goals with four assists, including both helpers in a 2-1 Game 7 victory.

Then came the final against the Flames, a team even more physical than the monsters from Philadelphia. He had an assist in Game 1, a goal and an assist in Game 2. He scored the only goal of Game 4. He picked up an assist in Game 5.

And in the do-or-die Game 6, Richards again showed the grit and heart many thought he didn't possess. He scored twice in the Lightning's 3-2 season-saving, double-overtime victory. In Game 7, Richards assisted on the crucial first goal, the goal that put Tampa Bay ahead to stay.

When the playoffs were over, Richards scored or assisted on 10 of the team's 16 game-winning goals. He finished with a team-high 12 goals and 14 assists. That made 26 points in 23 games.

That clutch performance earned him the trophy, barely over teammate Nikolai Khabibulin.

"I thought he was our best player," Khabibulin said. "He deserves to win it."

Now add Richards' name to the trophy previously won by legends such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and, Richards' idol, Joe Sakic.

"It's unbelieveable," Richards said. "I know it's a cliche, but you want to win the Cup. That's the goal and this (MVP) is the bonus. It's a great honor. It goes without saying."

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:01:17]

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