THE GAME-within-a-game plays out quietly, almost sullenly, with grim determination. If the Flyers are alive in this playoff series against Boston because Simon Gagne is back from his broken toe, and Scott Hartnell is back from oblivion, and Ville Leino looks like he's twice as fast as every Bruins defenseman right now - and all of those things are true - none of this is still happening if Mike Richards is not able to absorb 81 inches of hell every night, hell that wears a No. 33 on its back.
Someone has to play against Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' 6-9 defenseman. That someone, for an inordinate number of minutes in this series, has been Richards. Grueling does not begin to describe the process of working against such a big man, with such a long reach. But it seems to be Richards' task, that and annoying the life out of Bruins center Marc Savard.
In many ways it is thankless work. But what it does is open up the ice for everybody else. Because Richards eats so many minutes against Chara, the other centers - Danny Briere and Claude Giroux - have not had to operate in his enormous shadow nearly as often. And because of that - and while it took some time - the benefits are now becoming apparent as the Flyers have won two straight, closing the deficit to three games to two.
"They look a little tired now, Chara and all those D's," Leino was saying yesterday, after the Flyers skated on the off-day before tonight's Game 6. "I think we just have to get going. It's obviously helping with the time Richie is out against Chara."
"The big guys take the big pressure. Guys like Richie have to deal with the extra pressure and the extra stuff - that's on their backs. He's carrying the team, and when he does that, there's a lot more room for everyone else."
The first two games of the series, in Boston, Richards played more than 80 percent of his shifts against Chara. Since then it has been closer to 65 percent. Chara looked a little worn down in Game 4 but better in Game 5. But the point remains the same: Richards has been the one to sacrifice his game and his stamina so that the rest can have some room to create. He has played more than twice as many minutes against Chara in this series compared to, say Briere (and especially five-on-five).
"He's a great defenseman, obviously," Richards said. "It's a challenge to be on the ice with him. You've got to play hard against him. His competitive level is as high as anybody's. Not only is he big and strong, but he plays the game hard. You have nothing but respect for a guy like that."
But about the openings it might create for others?
"Maybe," Richards said. "I don't know. He plays a lot of minutes . . . It's hard to get away from him. When you are on the ice when he's not, you've got to try to make the best of it."
And that is precisely what is happening. The Briere-Hartnell-Leino line, born completely out of necessity with all of the injuries the Flyers have suffered up front, was tremendous in the Game 5 win in Boston. Briere loves the playoffs and plays big in the playoffs and always has.
But the emergence of Leino and the awakening of Hartnell have placed an enormous burden on a Bruins defense that has begun now to show signs of cracking in front of goaltender Tuukka Rask, who kind of looks like just one of the fellas when they can't build a human wall in front of him.
But all of that happens because Richards takes the beating he takes. And he takes it well. Playing nearly 23 minutes a night, largely against the Bruins' best players, he has been on the ice for exactly three even-strength goals in five games.
"It's definitely what is happening," Briere said. "He's playing some tough minutes there. I think he's performing very well playing against Chara. And at the same time, it gives players like me and Claude [Giroux] an opportunity to go against different defensemen as well. You have to be able to take advantage of it. It's a tough task for him, but it helps us. Slowly, it's been happening."
Slowly, maybe too slowly. The burden remains enormous, for Richards, for all of them. Even with everything, the Flyers are still only halfway home.
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