NEW YORK - From a white-walled hallway on the bottom floor of the Barclays Center on Thursday night, a member of the Washington Capitals public-relations staff extended his hand to guide Mike Richards into an expansive room.

Less than two hours before Washington's 4-1 victory against the Islanders, a red Capitals curtain, draped from a portable rod, marked the spot where Richards would stand and carry out a task that he always considered a chore when he was the Flyers' captain: answering questions from the media. No, Richards never much liked this part of being an NHL player, but here he was, an NHL player again. So it seemed a small toll to pay.

The day before, the Capitals had signed him to a one-year, $1 million contract, giving him a second chance in the league, a second chance at age 30 to be the player he once had been. It had been four months since the Manitoba Royal Canadian Mounted Police had charged him with possession of a controlled substance: Oxycodone. It had been three months since Richards and the Los Angeles Kings had reached a settlement agreement to dissolve his contract, since Kings general manager Dean Lombardi had told the Los Angeles Times that Richards had "played" him and made it "difficult [for Lombardi] to trust anyone right now." It had been 4 1/2 years since the Flyers had made that stunning decision to trade Richards to L.A., truncating the tenure of a player they had signed in 2007 to a 12-year, $69 million extension on the expectation that he would develop into the franchise's 21st-century answer to Bobby Clarke.

Richards had won an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, had won two Cups with the Kings, and he had fallen so far so fast that in recent months he had begun skating with his old junior team, the Kitchener Rangers, just to get some time on the ice. Now he shambled into the room, wearing a black suit, his hair at his nape and curly and wet, his shoulders hunched forward, and he did not pay lip service to having had some sort of epiphany. He was not contrite over what his demons had done to him or what he had done to himself. If he was anything, he was defiant.

"I'm going to be myself," he said. "That's all I know how to do, and that's all I'm going to be. I'm not going to try to change anything. I'm not going to try to change myself. I am who I am, and I've had success being that way."

He did not play Thursday night. He wasn't ready for that, and the Capitals don't need him immediately anyway. They entered Thursday with 61 points, the most in the NHL, once more a regular-season force. But they have that long and heavy postseason history hanging over them: They have advanced beyond the playoffs' second round once in 42 years, and they've squandered a three-games-to-one series lead 10 times, including to the Rangers last year. Once Richards gets in game shape, perhaps after a stint in the American Hockey League, he will be little more than a fourth-line center at best. Nevertheless, the Capitals hope his mere presence will act as an antidote for whatever seems to ail them every spring.

The best of Richards on the ice had always burst forth then, after all. He scored 23 points in 23 postseason games in 2010, for instance, and in the mind's eye, it's still possible to see that single dominant shift from Game 5 of those Eastern Conference Finals, when Richards set up a scoring chance, trucked over two Montreal Canadiens players, and eventually scored a shorthanded goal himself to tie the score at 1 and leave no doubt that the Flyers would finish off Montreal that night.

"We've all seen it, in the National Hockey League, in the playoffs, how a guy like Mike Richards can change games," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "He gets those moments, and that's why he likes to be in those moments."

He revealed nothing about his pending legal troubles, his years with the Flyers, the "dry island" that the team had created in an attempt to keep so many of its young players' night lives from catching up with them. Never, he said, did he contemplate the possibility that he wouldn't return to the NHL: "I always expected to."

He was asked what he had learned from the previous months, from the emptiness.

"Just don't take anything for granted," he said. "It's a privilege to play in the NHL. Not everyone gets to do it. It's not fun being 30 years old and sitting on the couch and not having much to do. I'm just excited to be back here, and obviously I thank the Capitals for taking a chance on me, and hopefully I can do some good things."

And then he was out the door and gone, down the same hallway from which he had come, and to Mike Richards, this was all natural, how it was supposed to be, what he had always expected. He was an NHL player again. But the words are the easy part.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski