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Brad Richards back in the Final: 'Hopefully, I can close one out'

Dropped to the fourth line in New York, bounced out of the Stanley Cup Final in five games, and bought out of his massive contract, Brad Richards hit a low point a little more than a year ago. He was hardly wallowing in self pity, but like any player in his mid-30s, he had doubts about his career, doubts about his future.

Then Stan Bowman gave him a ring.

“You perk up pretty quick when the Chicago Blackhawks call,” he said.

In Chicago, Richards saw the perfect opportunity — to play with great players, to reignite his career, to make it right back to the Stanley Cup Final. So he took a chance and took a one-year deal worth a mere $2 million — when the Rangers hand you $20 million on your way out, it’s easy to accept below market value — for the opportunity to center Patrick Kane, and make another run at the Cup.

Worked out pretty well, eh?

“It’s a great position to be in,” Richards said shortly after the Hawks knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference final on Saturday night. “It was so fresh in my mind, losing [in the Final last year], and when I signed, it was totally to try and get right back there. I hadn’t been in a Final in 10 years, and it’s just such a great feeling to have a chance again. So to do it twice, two years in a row, it’s pretty amazing. Hopefully, I can close one out.”

In hindsight, things couldn’t have gone much better for Richards. He finished the regular season with 12 goals and 25 assists, filling the longstanding void at second-line center and helping Kane to arguably the best season of his career. Looking far faster and spryer than he did in last year’s playoffs — perhaps less burdened than he was in New York — Richards has two goals and nine assists through the first three rounds.

“When he started playing with Kaner, all of a sudden he started taking off,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think he wanted to play with Kaner since Day 1. Took us a little longer than we would have liked, [but] at the end of the day, he seemed to flourish with him. The two of them were productive. … I think his scoring, his patience level, got a little quicker as the season progressed, a little more jump in his stride. It’s been noticeable as we got further in the playoffs, as well.”

Richards’ transition from Rangers star and unofficial captain to just another cog in the Hawks machine wasn’t easy. Not at first. Expected to center Kane on the second line, Richards opened the season on the fourth line, playing meager minutes in a minor role. He struggled to adapt to Quenneville’s system, and the responsibilities that Hawks centers bear. He had to learn new teammates, new styles of play, new protocols, new staff members, and a new city.

And he became a dad just as the season began, his thoughts split between home and hockey, between family and work, between getting his wife settled in a new city and a new country (she’s Australian), and getting himself settled on a new team in a new conference.

The Stanley Cup Final was hardly the first thing on his mind anymore. And at times, he looked and sounded like he was wondering what he had gotten himself into.

“I don’t know if I ever wondered that, it was always wondering, ‘What can I do to get into that groove?’” he said. “It’s a tough team to come to, when they’ve been so established. I was still in shock over not winning, and moving, and a new child, so I probably wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind, trying to get my game going. But it is such a great team. There was no panic, and you knew there was lots of help around to get you involved. And eventually you start feeling more comfortable off the ice, and on the ice, and now we’re here.”

Here on hockey’s biggest stage. And headed to Tampa, where Richards won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2004, a lifetime and three teams ago. Richards watched the Eastern Conference final with mixed emotions, watching two of his former teams fight it out, wondering if he might be going back to the scene of his greatest triumph, or the scene of his most anguished defeat. As long as he got there, he didn’t really care.

With the Hawks’ salary cap situation, it’s unlikely Richards will be back next season. But while there’s pain in the past and uncertainty in the future, Richards is simply reveling in the present.

“I grew up [with Tampa Bay] and won a Cup there, and I spent eight years of my career there,” he said. “It’s going to be a pretty special moment.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus