Brad Richards expected Sunday night would be a "sleepless night."
The Stars center returns today to the St. Pete Times Forum to face the Lightning, the team he spent his first 6½ years with, including the 2003-04 Stanley Cup season. Richards said the game — his first in Tampa since he was shipped to Dallas in February along with Johan Holmqvist for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Halpern — will be "bittersweet."
Richards, 28, has fond memories, still owns a home in Tampa, where his parents sometimes stay, and plans to live there when he retires. But that doesn't mean there won't be a little awkwardness when Richards, tied for the team lead with 36 points, faces off against his old friends.
"It'll be bizarre. I'll be nervous and anxious going into the place," he said. "Seeing the people … it's going to be a different day. It's going to go by real quick. All I want to do is make sure I'm ready to go and convince my teammates it's a big one for me."
Richards said he has thought about this moment for about two weeks and doesn't know how he'll be received by fans. He said considering the Lightning's roster overhaul since he left, it won't be as uncomfortable as if he would have been traded shortly after the Stanley Cup run.
There are only a few familiar faces, notably Marty St. Louis and best friend Vinny Lecavalier, with whom Richards has played since they were 14. Lecavalier called the situation "strange" and "bizarre."
"We played high school. We played juniors. We played here together," Lecavalier said. "There's not one team we didn't play together. We're best friends, and when you play against your best friend, it's different than any other person. We've been through a lot together. It's going to be pretty special."
Richards said he's starting to feel more comfortable in Dallas after a roller-coaster 12 months.
There have been high points, such as setting a career high and Stars franchise record with five assists against the Blackhawks in his first game with them, and leading them to the West final.
"It was amazing to get that feeling again of being so close to the Cup," Richards said.
This season, there have been lows. The Stars (19-17-7) are 12th in the West. There have been injuries and the Sean Avery saga that divided the locker room. (The left wing has not returned to the team since the end of his six-game suspension on Dec. 14 for derogatory comments about his ex-girlfriends dating other players.)
But Richards said they have played better lately (3-1-2 in their past six) and he has gotten more comfortable with the system and closer to his teammates.
"I've tried to turn the page, and it was hard at times last year," he said. "This year, slowly but surely, this is my team."
REVIEW: The league is reviewing Saturday's knee-on-knee hit by the Lightning's Evgeny Artyukhin that forced Ville Peltonen to be helped off of the ice. Florida coach Peter DeBoer called the hit "dirty." Any discipline would be announced before tonight's game.
Times staff writer Izzy Gould contributed to this report.