By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - One year ago, New York Rangers veteran center Brad Richards was benched in the team's last two games of the National Hockey League playoffs because of poor play.
"It was the lowest point in my career," Richards said about being made a healthy scratch during last year's conference semi-finals. "You never want to be on the outside looking in when your teammates are battling in what I consider the best part of hockey - the playoffs."
Richards is coming off a sub-par performance in Game Two of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings, but now he is being counted on to help turn the team's fortunes around.
"Brad is a veteran player. I know he's going to respond real well," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said on Monday. "I'm confident that's what he's going to do."
Stanley Cup hockey returned to Madison Square Garden on Monday for the first time since they triumphed 20 years ago but pure celebration was tempered with sober reality as the Rangers were trailing the best-of-seven series 2-0 after two overtime losses on the road to Los Angeles.
Thirteen-year veteran Richards, 34, has assumed a leadership role on the team since captain Ryan Callahan was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in March for forward Martin St. Louis.
"He's acting as the captain right now. He's certainly a leader in the room. He's been a leader on the ice," said Rangers president Glen Sather.
Richards, who 10 years ago helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win a Stanley Cup title along with friend and current linemate St. Louis, had a minus-three rating and a costly turnover in Sunday's 5-4 double overtime loss.
New York's number two line of Richards, St. Louis and Carl Hagelin, were outplayed throughout.
"I'm sure Brad, with his experience, knows that their whole line needs to be better," said Vigneault. "But they're veteran guys. They've been around. They can evaluate their game real well.
"I'm sure they're going to have a good bounce-back game."
Richards is eager for revenge.
"As a player, you always want to get right back into it when you lose," he said. "Especially an overtime game where you're that close, one shot away."
Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in Tampa Bay's run to the Cup in 2004, has five goals and six assists in 22 playoff games this season but has no points and six shots on goal in two games in this final.
Vigneault said he has faith his team can turn it around.
"Chance-wise we're right there with them. We played some good hockey. We got a little unfortunate ... But, you know, we're right there. We feel real good about our game," he said.
The Rangers coach said some key bounces went against them, but that things have a way of evening out.
"With the right effort, the right attitude ... luck will come with you," said Vigneault. "Well, we're working hard, working our butts off here."
The Rangers know they must finish strong after being outscored 4-0 in third periods and overtimes in the series.
"We have to hold our serve, and we know that," Vigneault said about winning on home ice. "But even though we're playing hard and we're playing the right way, they're a great hockey team. Give them full credit."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)