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Brad Richards captains the ship, even without the 'C'

The Rangers' Brad Richards charges the puck during

The Rangers' Brad Richards charges the puck during practice at the MSG training facility in Greenburgh on Sunday, June 1, 2014 as the team prepares for a shot at the Stanley Cup for the first time in 20 years. Credit: Craig Ruttle

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - He was out there again Sunday, taking as many questions and offering as much matter-of-fact wisdom as time would allow.

Brad Richards is not really the public face of this Rangers' Stanley Cup Final team in terms of what's happened on the ice. But he has been the public voice of a team without a player wearing the "C'' since Ryan Callahan was traded three months ago, and his words -- usually reflective and calm and always insightful and honest -- have meant something to those inside and outside the Rangers' room.

"I think when you lose your captain, you have to recognize when the room needs things,'' Richards said right after the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night. "When you're in the league [a while], you just kind of know. You get a feel for the locker room, and I think it's been a good challenge for me to try to help out that way."

When this season began, no one knew what was in store for Richards. He was coming off a very bizarre, potentially crushing season. It began with the 34-year-old taking an active role in the three-month lockout talks and ended with Richards in street clothes for the final two Rangers playoff games in their five-game loss to the Bruins in the second round of the playoffs.

John Tortorella, whose presence behind the Rangers' bench helped sway Richards to choose the Rangers over the Kings during his free-agent whirlwind in 2011, was dismissed. Alain Vigneault came in, giving Richards a blank slate -- at least for the season. Glen Sather opted not to buy out the remaining seven years and $36 million on Richards' deal before the season began, but that option is very much on the table when this offseason comes. Which makes Richards' role as de facto captain all the more important.

"We have a lot of great leaders on this team, which is part of the reason we are where we are,'' Derek Dorsett said. "Richie has just kind of taken over.''

His on-ice play has been timely. He still doesn't seem as quick on his skates as he did during his heyday with the Lightning and Stars, but he had 20 goals and 51 points during the regular season and scored the winner in Game 7 against the Penguins, one of five goals he has for a team that has personified scoring balance.

And in two or three weeks, when the time comes for Sather and the Rangers' braintrust to decide what to do with Richards' remaining six years and $27 million, they can think about the unprecedented postseason success the Rangers have had with him.

"Two conference finals in three years, and now a trip to the Final,'' Richards said. "It's not about me, but this is why I picked being here. I had gone three years without making the playoffs and I wanted to be somewhere where we could go deep in the playoffs every year.''

He picked the right spot, and Richards has made it even better. Whatever happens in these next few games, letting Richards go would be difficult, given what he's given to this team and the fans. "He hasn't changed much inside the room since he's been here,'' Brian Boyle said. "We don't really notice that he talks to you guys that much.''

But the rest of us do. The Rangers could become a Stanley Cup champion with no official captain, but everyone knows who is doing the captain's work and how important it's been.

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