The seminal moment of Philadelphia's resurgent run through the playoffs arrived with a thunderclap. In Game 3 of Philly's second-round series against the Bruins, Flyers captain Mike Richards pancaked Boston forward David Krejci with a clean open-ice hit that knocked Krejci out of the series with a broken wrist. Though the Bruins won that game to take a 3--0 series lead, the force of Richards's check was a wake-up call to his teammates. The Flyers won four straight to eliminate Boston and through Sunday led the Eastern Conference final against Montreal three games to one. "Since that hit, we've played like nothing could stand in our way," says Flyers forward Scott Hartnell. "That's the captain speaking loud and clear, even if he wasn't really speaking." Richards prefers it that way. Asked about the hit, he'll say, "It was O.K.," and not much else.
After a bumpy start as captain last season, the soft-spoken Richards is now firmly entrenched as Philly's quiet, but impactful, leader—one who sometimes leaves both his sentences and his foes in fragments. He led the workmanlike Flyers with 18 postseason points through Sunday, wore out Bruins All-Star defenseman Zdeno Chara in the second round and has thoroughly disrupted the swift Canadiens by finishing checks, cluttering passing lanes and blocking shots. "Mike has been a foundation, and the players feed off what he does on the ice," says Flyers coach Peter Laviolette.
Though Richards earned a leader's rep in juniors, the Flyers showed considerable faith in him in September 2008, when—nine months after he signed a 12-year, $69 million contract—they named him captain at 23. True, the franchise had done this successfully before. At 23, Bobby Clarke was the youngest captain in NHL history when the Flyers gave him the C. And at 25, Richards's age now, Clarke had already won two Cups.
The appointment was heavily scrutinized. Richards scored 30 goals despite playing with torn labrums in both shoulders and was nominated for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward. But off-season reports that summer focused on the Flyers' hard-partying habits, and Richards (who had been included in the reports) boycotted local reporters for two weeks in October 2009, leading some to wonder if recently acquired defenseman Chris Pronger might have been a better choice for captain. "I'm not as comfortable speaking in front of big crowds," says Richards. "People wanted things to write about in the summer, so they made something out of nothing."
Flyers brass supported him. "If the way I conducted myself was in any way similar to [how Richards conducted himself]," Clarke says, "I should feel proud."
Richards is not Philadelphia's most talented player. He does not have game-breaking skills. And at 5'11", 195, he's more fleshy than flashy. But he has grit. A superb penalty killer, he's the only player in NHL history with three career three-on-five goals. "He has the worst body," says Flyers' forward Ian Laperriere, "but, man, he has heart; taking hits, making hits, never taking a shift off. If we're following Mike, we're winning."
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MAIN MAN Invaluable on the penalty-kill, Richards led all Philadelphia forwards in ice time through Sunday.