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Richards earns his first star from the NHL

Center Mike Richards, the Flyers' first-year captain, blamed himself for Saturday's 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL didn't buy it.

Center Mike Richards, the Flyers' first-year captain, blamed himself for Saturday's 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The NHL didn't buy it.

The league yesterday named Richards its first star of the week for the first time in his career.

"Sweet," said the soft-spoken Richards when told he had won the award.

In his two games last week, Richards collected eight points, including a career-best five points (two goals, three assists) in Thursday's 6-3 win over Buffalo.

On Saturday, Richards scored a goal and added two assists against Pittsburgh, but he tried to take the blame away from goalie Marty Biron - whose late blunder led to the Penguins' winning goal - by saying he cost the Flyers the win with two turnovers that contributed to scores.

Coach John Stevens said Richards, who turned 24 on Feb. 11, has been a model captain.

"There was some uncertainty about naming a guy at his age - and I think he's answered all those questions pretty firmly by the way he's played, the way he's carried himself, and the way he takes responsibility when things don't go well," Stevens said after yesterday's practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees.

Richards has scored a shorthanded goal in three straight games - the first NHL player to accomplish the feat since 1998.

For the season, Richards has 60 points (23 goals, 37 assists) and a team-high 106 hits in 54 games. He is on pace to surpass his personal bests in points (75), goals (28) and assists (47).

"From the get-go, I said he would be the perfect choice as captain," veteran center Danny Briere said. "He has all the qualities in a captain. . . . He treats everyone the same way and has that quiet confidence about him - and that comes from the way he plays on the ice."

Led by Richards, the Flyers are fourth in the Eastern Conference heading into tonight's intriguing matchup at No. 2 Washington, a team that is 24-5-1 at home and 12-1-3 overall against Atlantic Division opponents.

For most of Saturday's game, Richards was matched against Sidney Crosby. Tonight, he will spend some time against Alex Ovechkin, who leads the league with 43 goals.

"He's a world-class player who does everything and plays hard," said Richards, who is a plus-23 compared to Ovechkin's plus-15. "We have our work cut out for us, but we've had success against him before."

Richards said the Flyers will try to get physical with Ovechkin to throw him off his game.

"If he's worried about hitting people, then he's not worried about scoring goals," he said.

Breakaways. Antero Niittymaki, who made 47 saves in a 7-1 win over Washington on Dec. 20, will be in goal tonight, while Biron will play tomorrow against visiting Los Angeles. . . . Jeff Carter, whose five-game goal-less drought is his longest of the season, left practice early after feeling ill yesterday but is expected to play tonight. . . . Briere, who is on the verge of returning from groin and abdominal injuries, had been targeting tomorrow for his return, but said Friday against visiting Montreal is more likely. The Flyers will have to clear about $2.5 million in cap space to make room for Briere.