The Washington Stealth enter the 2013 National Lacrosse League playoffs with one of the best -- Tyler Richards. The Stealth play host to the Edmonton Rush at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at Comcast Arena in the NLL West Division semifinals.
Richards is no stranger to postseason runs. He helped the Stealth win the NLL championship in 2010, their first season in Everett after relocating from San Jose. In three playoff games, Richards posted a 9.90 goals against average, giving up just 32 goals and posting an .807 save percentage, best among starting goalkeepers.
In the NLL championship game, Richards capped off the run by outplaying Toronto goaltender and NLL Hall of Famer Bob Watson as the Stealth beat the Rock 15-11.
A year later, the Stealth struggled through the regular season in defense of their title, finishing 8-8. In the playoffs, however, Richards was even better than he was the year before and led the Stealth back to the championship game. He had a 7.71 goals against average while giving up just 23 goals in three games with a .854 save percentage in the 2011 postseason.
The Stealth faced the Rock for a second consecutive year in the championship game. This time, Watson and his teammates got the better of Richards and the Stealth, winning 8-7.
Richards said the 2010 and 2011 postseasons were the finest moments of his young NLL career.
"Both championship runs were some of the best lacrosse I have ever played," Richards said. "My best stretch of lacrosse might actually have been the championship game we lost. I felt after that season that I couldn't have played any better than I did. I just got beat by a goalie that played better than I could."
For everything that went right in 2010 and 2011, everything went wrong in 2012.
The Stealth played nearly half the season without head coach Chris Hall, who was battling cancer. Injuries and inconsistent play plagued the team throughout the season and Washington finished 4-12 and was the only NLL team to miss the postseason.
Richards wasn't immune to the struggles. In 13 games, he was 3-9 with a 12.70 goals against average and a .771 save percentage. Those numbers wouldn't be bad for some NLL goalkeepers, but Richards knew he could be better.
Richards had a busy life outside of lacrosse. He had a wedding to plan and was in the process of buying his first house. For once, lacrosse wasn't the most important thing in the world.
"If I'm being truthful to myself and to the fans out there, it wasn't my best effort," Richards said. "It's something that I look back and wish that I had put a better effort forward, but it is what it is now and we are back in the playoffs, back to focusing on winning another championship."
After the 2012 season, Richards did some soul-searching and found his motivation to become one of the best goalkeepers in the NLL once again.
"I kind of came to realize that you only get an opportunity to play this game for so long and I want to make the most of it while I can," Richards said. "That was really the motivation for me to make my mark on this league and do it as quickly as possible and for as long as possible."
Richards did just that in 2013. He finished the regular season with an 8-5 record, 10.92 goals against average and a .795 save percentage, statistically making him one of the top three goalkeepers in the league along with Toronto's Nick Rose and Rochester's Matt Vinc.
A year ago, Vinc led the sub-.500 Knighthawks on a playoff run to the championship with nearly identical statistics to Richards' 2010 championship run. Vinc went 3-0 in the postseason giving up 32 goals and finishing with a 10.67 goals against average and an .807 save percentage.
"It's pretty tough to win a championship in this league without a great goalie," Stealth head coach Chris Hall said. "You've got to hope that your goalie is prepped and on top of his game and ready to go on those three playoff weekends beginning obviously with the first one because there are no second chances."
The mark of any good goalkeeper is not just making the saves they should make, but also making the ones they shouldn't. Richards has done that as well as anyone this season.
"I have always said goalies are gold in this league and you can't win without one," Hall said. "Tyler has pulled a couple of games out of the hat for us which was fantastic. There were a couple of games I thought where we didn't really deserve to win at time because you know we just weren't playing that well, but he made so many spectacular saves. That's a huge motivator for the players."
Richards praises the defense in front of him for taking the pressure off so he can make great saves. Defenseman and team captain Kyle Sorensen tells a different story.
"It's a lot more relaxing to know that you have a goalie back there making saves that he has no business making," Sorensen said. "I think he is just being humble when he says that half the time, because we leave him kind of hanging out to dry half the time and he just continues to show up and play big."
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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