Mike Richards craned his neck downward, licked his lips and wiped his mouth on the left shoulder of his sweater. The aftertaste of his near-goal was just too bitter.
A day after making his first appearance for the Washington Capitals in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres, Richards nearly scored his first goal, with his attempt in the first period of a 5-2 victory the New York Rangers swatted away at the last possible moment.
The Capitals added Richards, a two-time 30-goal scorer, two weeks ago on a contract that will carry through the remainder of the season. It was considered a low-risk, high-reward move for a player whose personal life had made him a reclamation project, and he figured to serve as organizational depth, shoring up the absence of third-line center Jay Beagle for the better part of the next month.
Instead, as Richards has shown in his first two games, Washington appears to have found a versatile player who can strengthen their second-ranked offense even while centering, in the meantime, their fourth line.
“I was talking to Mike that obviously, the hardest thing to get back is your legs,” said right wing Justin Williams, who had his second career hat trick in the victory and played with Richards with the Los Angeles Kings. “As long as you keep spinning the wheels and moving your legs, everything else is going to come back. Your head, your hands, it’s all going to come back. He’s been moving his feet very well.”
Richards made his debut with the Capitals in their 4-1 loss on Saturday, then was back in the lineup on Sunday afternoon — a daunting task for a player who had not been on the ice in more than nine months.
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The center spent the last four seasons with the Kings, but his struggles last year led to Los Angeles sending him to the minor leagues before terminating his contract outright in June.
That’s when the team learned he had been arrested for possession of a controlled substance while trying to cross the border into Canada. Although the case is pending — Richards’ hearing, originally scheduled Sept. 10, was continued to Dec. 8, and then to Jan. 28 — coach Barry Trotz and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said shortly after the signing that they believed the legal matter would have no bearing on Richards’ playing status.
Richards sat out the Capitals’ previous four games for conditioning before entering the lineup on Saturday, when he stepped in for 13:01 against the Sabres — including 3:16 on the penalty kill. Against the Rangers, Richards was on the ice for 11:47, with three minutes of that short-handed. He won 14 of 20 faceoffs and took two shots on goal, nearly scoring for the first time with the team 18:22 into the first period.
He was standing near the Rangers’ crease when the puck bounced off Jason Chimera’s stick and headed in his direction. Although he couldn’t muster a clean look around Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle, Richards poked the puck enough to send it toward the goal line — and his second-effort jab was denied only when Rangers goaltender Antti Raanta got enough of his stick on the puck to send it off the far post.
Richards played fairly consistently on the penalty kill during his time with the Kings, and he was thrust right into that role on Saturday.
“I think it almost made it easier because I was chucking pucks away to begin with, so on the PK, you’re allowed to do that,” Richards told reporters in Buffalo following Saturday’s game. “It made it easier on me. It’s just feeling comfortable. My legs didn’t feel bad. It’s just — it’s making plays. It’s the best league in the world, and to expect to step right in and not miss a beat is a little unrealistic.”
Richards surpassed 20 goals and 60 points for four seasons, all with the Philadelphia Flyers, before being traded to the Kings in 2011. The Capitals don’t need Richards to reach that level of production during the last 37 games of the regular-season — and he might not be able to, depending on how Beagle’s return affects the construction of the lineup — but if he does, it will be a significant help.
“I know all about him,” Richards said. “I know what he can do. He’s just getting his feet wet.”