HE'S GASSED.

He's hurt.

There's nothing wrong with Mike Richards that a couple of healthy, skilled linemates wouldn't solve.

So go the most popular theories surrounding the effort of the Flyers' 25-year-old captain in the Stanley Cup finals.

They are cousins, really, to the rationale surrounding Chase Utley's funks, including his current one.

Substitute hitters for linemates and you get the gist.

Richards is minus-6 for the series. Of his 23 playoff points, two have come in the finals. An assist in Game 2. An unassisted goal in Game 4, when he swiped the puck from Niklas Hjalmarsson and backhanded it past Antti Niemi.

He has won fewer than 50 percent of his faceoffs.

They are our golden gods, Mike Richards and Chase Utley, handsome, hard-playing men for whom we seek explanations when things do not go well for them. We can't believe what we're seeing, so there must be some explanation other than that they can fail too, that they are, in fact, not gods.

"It's not the first time I've gone in a streak that I haven't scored," Richards was saying after practice yesterday. "I don't think I'm playing bad hockey."

His line, which consists of the team's two top scorers and Simon Gagne, has provided very little statistically this series. Jeff Carter has two points and is a minus-5. Gagne also has two points. It's hard to quantify just how much of Richards' struggles are his own, and how much is the by-product of playing with two forwards recovering from foot injuries. It's hard to even get a consensus on which of his wings has given him less, or been in his way more.

One veteran Toronto scribe thought Carter is too slow and bringing them down. Another noted what he thought was Gagne's unwillingness to crash the boards or fight for pucks. I think Carter's speed has been fine, but that he's fighting the puck.

"He still looks good out there to me," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, after noting that Carter has missed the equivalent of 2 months this spring because of those injuries. "He still looks like he can contribute."

Gagne seems slow to me, and lost without the puck. Bottom line is that neither's contributions justifies their playing time. Not even close.

Have they also affected Richards? Worn him down? Or is he part of the malaise?

Richards couldn't lift the puck on a semi-breakaway in Game 2, shooting it into Niemi's pads. Another shot trickled off Niemi's glove and just wide of the net in that 2-1 loss, and Niemi stopped another with his skate in that game. Richards missed a wide-open net during a Game 3 power play, shooting the puck over the net.

"Getting a lot of good opportunities," Richards said. "Getting a lot of good looks at the net."

He said this in a positive spin, repeating the hockey mantra that goals will "come naturally if I keep working hard and going to the net."

"He plays as many minutes as a forward can and it's hitting and grinding," Ian Laperriere said yesterday. Like Utley, Richards has earned universal admiration for how he plays the game, while inviting a cost-analysis to what it does to the player long-term.

"There's guys out there I won't name who just flow out there," Laperriere said. "They play 25 minutes but you don't see them. Richie's the other way. He plays 25 but you know he's out there. You better know, or you might get knocked on your [butt]."

I reminded Laperriere of what he said about Richards back in the New Jersey series, when his hustle was the difference in a Game 3 overtime victory. Laperriere called Richards "the worst body on this team," saying the captain "was built like my 8-year-old son." The context, of course, was complimentary, Laperriere lauding how Richards used every ounce of that body to win those crucial hockey battles.

"He puts his body in front of anything," Laperriere said that night.

He does, too. Game after game. Which leads to all the theories about too much playing time, too much grind, too much wear-and-tear on a 5-11, 195-pound frame. It's been the same discussion, really, over the last two postseasons, once when it was clear his back bothered him and last year, when injuries required the team to use him on power plays and penalty kills just to reach the postseason.

This season the 2-week grind of the Olympics just added to it.

So is he gassed?

Hurt?

I scribbled those very words during that Game 3 against New Jersey, before Richards' hustle set up the winning goal in overtime with the kind of effort that has become his signature, the same kind of effort he showed on the goal he scored when he stole the puck behind the net in Game 4 of this series.

Does he have another one or two of those left?

Or is the captain actually as human as he looks?

"Mike Richards has proven to be, I think, in everybody's eyes, a big-time player," Laviolette said yesterday. "I would expect a big game from Mike tomorrow."

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