Mike Richards was unsure about playing right through the morning practice.

His shoulder is still sore from the separation he suffered when he slipped and went hard into the boards behind the net against on Florida on March 20. He wants to play. The thought of ending the season and missing the last two home games doesn't sit well with the 22-year-old center.

But neither does the thought of something happening to his still-vulnerable shoulder, such as surgery and going into the next year hurt. This year has been bad enough. Why make it any worse?

"[Tuesday] was good, I was shooting the puck well and even battled [Riley Cote] a little in the corner and that felt good," Richards said. "Then [Wednesday] I was sore and pulled myself out.

"Different days are better than others. I just want it to be 100 percent before I take the risk of going in there. I think it's important to get healthy before I come back. I don't want top go out there and injure it further and then come back next year still feeling the effects.

"I don't want to finish the year with an injury, but I don't want to get reinjured for the future."

This has been a disappointing year for Richards. He had nothing but success in his early career, but this season - and last, to some extent - he has struggled.

Some of it has to do with injury, some with the way the season has gone, and some has to do with the fact that he is still developing his role in the NHL.

Richards, right now, does not appear to be the kind of player who will put up big numbers, or play on a first or second line. He appears to be developing into more of a checking center with the potential of someone like the Devils' John Madden.

Madden has made a career of playing against the opponent's top scorers, killing penalties and being on the ice for big moments. Richards hopes he can be that kind of player.

"I'm hoping to be a good defensive center and try to put up numbers and bring energy and help the team out where I can," he said.

That can't happen if he misses the same number of games to injury.

Richards has missed 23 games this year, most due to surgery to repair an abdominal tear.

This summer, Richards will try to be more prepared for the start of camp.

"I didn't skate at all during the summer and then I jumped right into it. It's something I have to learn from," he said. "I still work out as hard as I can, but it can't compare to playing on the ice.

"I was disappointed this season," he said. "I had a really slow start. I didn't feel I was playing bad but it was a slow start and then I had the groin pull.

"I never pictured myself as an injured player," he said. "But I had two injures this year. It's been really frustrating. It's been disappointing numberswise, teamwise, and this summer is going to be a good time to look forward to next year."

Snap shots

Ryan Parent played his first game for the Phantoms on Wednesday night. Last night he played for the Flyers. The 20-year-old defensive prospect, acquired from Nashville in the Peter Forsberg trade, was added to the lineup late after Joni Pitkanen reportedly came down with the flu.

Parent wore number 77. He traveled with the team to Toronto on Monday but did not play. *