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College men's hockey: Richards continues rise to top of Bulldogs' scoring charts

Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Minnesota Duluth forward Justin Richards (19) celebrates a first-period goal against St. Cloud State goaltender Dávid Hrenák (34) during Saturday's game at Amsoil Arena.

Minnesota Duluth sophomore center Justin Richards has always thought of himself as a pass-first kind of player.

Shooting first is against his nature, but Richards said he's trying to change that based on the wisdom bestowed upon him by his Bulldogs coaches and father, Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Todd Richards.

"I'm always looking for the pass," Richards said. "The coaches have been telling me, and even my dad has been telling me, maybe to be a little more selfish sometimes and to get the pucks on net."

It would be cliche to say 'the floodgates have opened' offensively for Richards since he picked up his first college goal Oct. 19 in an 8-2 win over Maine, but it's also true.

After posting 12 assists, but no goals, in his first 48 games at UMD, Richards has tallied seven goals and eight assists in the 16 games since to take over as the leading point-getter for the fifth-ranked Bulldogs, who are in Oxford, Ohio, this weekend to face Miami in NCHC play at 6:35 p.m. Friday and 6:05 p.m. Saturday.

The first Ohio native to ever play at UMD — his father was once head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets — Richards has scored goals in four of his last six games. He has points in 14 of his 20 games this year, including each of the last four.

Did that first goal give Richards a boost? Yes, he said, but added that he felt confident coming into the season based on everything he accomplished a year ago as a freshman third-line center.

"I don't really think it was that goal, I think it was just coming into this year after winning the national championship and playing the role that I was on that third line," Richards said. "I got a lot of confidence from that.

"That first goal did give me some confidence, too, and now ... I want to score now. I want to score a lot more now and I expect to score."

Richards is coming off a two-goal, three-point weekend against second-ranked St. Cloud State, the NCHC leader. He scored a goal both nights of the series split to move within a goal of linemate Parker Mackay — the senior wing and UMD's leading goal-scorer at eight.

Echoing his linemate, Mackay said the confidence has been there since the start of the season for Richards. First came the confidence, then came the goals, not the other way around, Mackay said.

"He's strong around the net," Mackay said. "I think he understands when he needs to shoot pucks. He hasn't passed up a lot of shot opportunities this year.

"Usually the only time he's giving it to me is if I'm yelling, but I'm yelling quite a bit, so maybe I should stop yelling for the puck and let him score goals."

Mackay has credited Richards on more than one occasion this season for goals. The captain said he's been the beneficiary a couple times of "outrageous" backhand passes by Richards to set up scores.

Those backhanders and other similar plays bring out another overused cliche in hockey, that Richards is 'the straw that stirs the drink' this year for the Bulldogs' offense. Numbers back up that cliche, however.

Of UMD's forwards, Richards boasts the best plus-minus rating of plus-8. He's been on the ice for 20 even-strength or short-handed UMD goals and 12 even-strength or short-handed goals by the opposition.

Sophomore defenseman Scott Perunovich, at plus-6, is the only Bulldog to have been on the ice for more UMD even-strength or short-handed goals than Richards this season at 23.

"He plays the game with simplicity and that's what makes him effective," Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. "There are some guys that really complicate the game. Right now, hopefully, he continues to do that and we get more guys doing the same thing."

Richards' ability to create offense for himself and those around him prompted Sandelin to slot junior wing Riley Tufte with Richards and Mackay last weekend against the Huskies. Tufte had been alongside senior center Peter Krieger and sophomore wing Nick Swaney during the first half.

After scoring 16 goals last season — 11 of which were at even strength — Tufte had just four goals in his first 18 games this season and all were on power plays. He went into last weekend with a goal or an assist in eight straight games.

Tufte picked up his first even-strength goal of the season Saturday to end his pointless skid by banging home a shot from the slot. That goal came off the forecheck of Richards and a backhanded pass by Mackay into the slot.

"He's a guy that you can put him with anyone, you can put him with the fourth line, and I think he'd spark them a bit," Tufte said of Richards. "He's just one of those guys you want to play with. He'll spark anyone it seems like."

Tufte said he sympathized with Richards last season over his quest to notch that first college goal. While the 2016 first-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars didn't have to wait 48 games to get his, it often felt like that based on what critics were saying during his freshman season .

Tufte said it meant a lot when he recorded that first college point in Game 15, and his first goal two games later. Both were big confidence boosts, he said.

"He was truly snakebit last year," Tufte said of Richards. "He works so hard. That's never a question if he works hard or not. This year, the bounces are coming his way and it's fun to see because he worked so hard over the course of this offseason."

NO. 5 UMD (12-6-2) AT MIAMI (9-9-4)

What: NCHC series

When: 6:35 p.m. Friday/6:05 p.m. Saturday

Where: Goggin Ice Arena, Oxford, Ohio

TV: My9

Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9

Internet: nchc.tv (video)

Twitter: @mattwellens

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317