PITTSBURGH - He hit two pipes and assisted on the only Flyers goal.

He played 27 shifts and more than 23 minutes, was on the ice more than 6 minutes longer than Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

He played on four power-play opportunities, was involved in nine penalty-killing situations.

And when it was over Mike Richards looked tired, damn tired, a look that has become unnervingly familiar over the last month of Flyers hockey. Throughout last night's surprisingly one-sided 4-1, Game 1 loss to the Penguins, his usually stoic mug was a study in exhaustion, frustration, even - at this early stage of the postseason - desperation.

"It's frustrating," the Flyers' captain said. "It's frustrating when you have momentum or you're starting to gain momentum and you're thrown back on your heels again from a penalty you don't need to take. Penalties where you're playing physical in your own end or you're trying to finish a guy or take away a scoring chance from them, OK. But it wasn't like that tonight. We were taking penalties away from the puck, away from the scoring angles. And when you do that, it just tires you out. You're blocking shots, pucks are hitting you, it tires you out.

"It's a lot harder playing defense than it is playing offense."

The Flyers were the most penalized team during the regular season. This put Richards on the ice for an amazing number of minutes, a number that has seemed to have extracted some attrition to his jump right now.

There's no way around it. The speed of the Penguins accentuates this, but the truth is that Richards has looked gassed for a while now. Or a little hurt. It's interesting that he brought up blocking pucks, and the toll it takes. Sometimes when he tries to accelerate up ice, he teeters for a second or 2, as if he's drawing on muscles that are no longer there, or incapacitated.

He has made some uncharacteristic lazy passes of late. He has made some decisions that suggest tired legs and a frustrated man. He has even worn that frustration at times. Just past the midpoint of the second period, Richards came down the right side and was easily measured by a Pens defenseman. He tried to fire it into the crease, but the puck was deflected instead into the netting above the glass.

When it landed, Richards whacked at it, uncharacteristically, in frustration.

Because he is asked to play power plays and penalty kills, he has logged a ton of minutes. So has Jeff Carter. This has been an issue brought up from time to time to the coaching staff and both players, and the response is always the same: They can handle it.

Last night, head coach John Stevens was asked the same question by a Pittsburgh reporter. To wit: Do you see guys like Richards and Carter, with as much time as you guys have had to spend on the PK, starting to wear down a little bit?

Stevens said no, and then he brought up Scott Hartnell's notorious effort, which included three of those kind of penalties Richards referred to, and ended with a game misconduct for fighting.

But Hartnell didn't lose this game. He just made sure Richards and, to a lesser extent, Carter, had less in the tank to win it. And if this was a case of Richards slowing as the game went on, OK, maybe he bounces back. But the captain's best play came in the second half of the game, not the first, when presumably the Penguins slowed some, or lost a little of their edge.

"I wouldn't put the tag on Mike," Stevens said. "I just thought our team, when they got the lead right away, we looked like we were pressing the issue a little bit and a step behind. I wouldn't put Mike in that category by himself."

For sure, this loss is not on him. It's just that your stars need to play like stars this time of the year, and the Flyers' stars have been required to do a ton of grunt work this season.

Malkin and Crosby did little of that in Game 1. It's not part of their job description, really. Malkin had 17 shifts, Crosby 20. Together, they spent 25 seconds killing power plays.

Together, they spent just under 14 minutes on the power play. They combined for four points and required a whole lot of shot-blocking, a whole lot of energy from two guys whose tanks might be closer to "E'' than anyone is willing to admit.

"Mike's a healthy player,'' insisted Stevens. You can only hope. Because they're going to need more from Mike Richards to make this the long series he vowed last night it still would be. *

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