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Brad Ricahards has 12 goals and 25 assists in 75 games this season. (AP Photo)

As playoffs near, Brad Richards feels he’s at the top of his game

SHARE As playoffs near, Brad Richards feels he’s at the top of his game
SHARE As playoffs near, Brad Richards feels he’s at the top of his game

A year ago at this time, Brad Richards was the de facto captain of the captainless New York Rangers, leading his team to the Stanley Cup Final, managing the internal workings of the dressing room, and handling the bulk of the media obligations, all while coping with his own on-ice struggles and the looming prospect of his contract being bought out. He was the face of the franchise in its biggest moment in two decades.

Now? Well, Richards still says “they” a lot when he talks about the Blackhawks.

“There’s a lot less going on,” Richards said. “I might see some stuff, but I’m not in on it because I know that other guys are handling it, guys who’ve been around. Sometimes it’s tough, because you want to do some things or say something, but you’ve got to know your place. You still talk to the younger kids and if you see stuff, you want everybody to be professional. But I didn’t come here to try to change [the leadership] here. I came to add to it.”

Coming to Chicago was never about playing top minutes, or supplanting Jonathan Toews and the other team leaders. It was about rejuvenating his career after the buyout in New York, and chasing another Stanley Cup at age 34. And the lighter load has Richards feeling better — and playing better — than he has in years.

Richards played 82 regular-season games and 25 playoff games last season, and 75 games so far this year. But this spring, he’s not feeling all those miles.

“It goes up and down, and for a while there in the dog days of February, you get a little fatigued and you’re trying to find ways to motivate yourself,” he said. “But the good thing coming here this year was knowing the minutes weren’t going to be the same type of minutes I played before. To feel this good going into the playoffs, with the amount of games I’ve played in the last two or three years, is nice. It’s not having that heavy load.”

The numbers haven’t quite been there for Richards this season, aside from the remarkable stretch he, Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg enjoyed in November and December. And when he lost Kane on his wing, Richards staggered through a difficult stretch that was part of a 23-game goal drought. But his latest line, with Patrick Sharp and Antoine Vermette — a guy who was expected to challenge for Richards’ spot at second-line center, but couldn’t take it from him —has been buzzing.

And Joel Quenneville, who’s been hard on Richards for his lack of speed, and who was slow to trust him early in the year, likes what he’s seen.

“Right now, I think he’s playing as good as he has at any point all year,” Quenneville said. “I like his game. I think he’s picked up his pace to the game.”

It’s silly to think that Richards is actually faster in April than he was at the start of the season, of course. But he’s undeniably quicker — reacting faster, recognizing plays faster, getting to loose pucks faster. There was one moment in the second period Thursday against Vancouver when Richards looked like he was shot out of a cannon, getting from the slot to the corner in a split second, just because he anticipated a play so well.

Even with more than 1,000 games under his belt, it took Richards nearly all season to fully grasp and embrace Quenneville’s system, particularly his insistence that centers play below the puck, and never blow the zone early to lead the rush. But he’s got it now, and unburdened and unleashed, he feels poised this spring to be a big contributor on the ice, not just off it.

“I think a lot of it is just understanding how to play the way they want me to play,” Richards said. “I feel as good as I have in the last four years, playing, winning battles, getting to pucks. When you start doing that, you just free up. Your mind’s not in the way. You thinking less, so you get to things a little quicker and you look a lot faster. If you lined me up blue line to blue line, I probably wouldn’t be any different. But when you free your mind and you’re having fun and you know that the playoffs are right around the corner, it’s exciting. It’s fun to be a part of it.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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