It certainly must have been an agonizing decision for coach John Tortorella. But he phoned Brad Richards, whom he has coached on two NHL teams, Thursday morning, long before Game 4 against the Bruins, to tell him he wouldn't be playing.
"I don't know if surprised is the right word," Richards, 33, who had been relegated to a fourth-line role, said Thursday morning. "I'm disappointed . . . It's not over . . . I have to work harder, try my best that this never happens again."
In a way, being benched is not much of a shocker, but the timing -- before an elimination game -- certainly could be questioned. Tortorella, while acknowledging Richards has struggled with the pace of the game in this shortened season, has regularly reduced his ice time.
"I love that guy. I've grown up with that guy,'' Tortorella said after the Rangers beat the Bruins in overtime, 4-3, to extend the series to a fifth game.
Tortorella said he wanted to create a real fourth line with Kris Newbury and Micheal Haley and that anyone who thinks he's blaming Richards can "kiss my ---- if you want to write something different."
Tortorella called Richards a "hell of a player going through a hell of a time'' and said putting him on the fourth line doesn't help him or the team. He would not say if he'll play in Game 5.
Richards was the top free agent available in the summer of 2011 and signed a nine-year, $60-million contract. But Tortorella has kept him dressed as a fourth-line center and deployed him on the ineffective power play because he hoped -- or expected, given his track record -- some clutch plays down the stretch and in the postseason.
Richards, who often has appeared frustrated after games, played just 8:10 in Game 3, had one shot and was a minus-1.
Richards stayed on the ice long after virtually all of his teammates left Thursday morning's skate at the Garden. Asked if it has been difficult to be effective in a fourth-line role, Richards, one of two alternate captains, simply said: "Yes."
There has been widespread speculation that Richards, who is owed $36 million through 2019-20, is a candidate for a compliance buyout under the CBA this summer. With a buyout of Richards, the Rangers would save $6.6 million annually in salary-cap space and cost the Rangers $24 million over 14 years.
Tortorella was Richards' coach with Tampa Bay from 2000-08 -- the Lightning won a Stanley Cup in 2004 -- and helped persuade Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather to offer him the deal. Richards had 25 goals and 41 assists in 2011-12 and was 6-9-15 in 20 games last spring during the run to the conference finals.
Richards did not play overseas during the lockout and spent much of last summer in New York. He was heavily involved in negotiations during the NHL lockout, especially in the final weeks, with the Players Association. He also was instrumental in organizing events to raise money for victims of superstorm Sandy in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Atlantic City, where a charity exhibition game staged by NHL players raised $500,000.
"I can't speak for Brad, but he's been a leader all year with us," said winger Arron Asham, who also was scratched Thursday night. "He's a voice in the room and one of our top players. I have nothing bad to say about Brad. It's obviously not his decision, it's the coach's decision, and if that's the way he wants to go, that's the way he wants to go."