- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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Following a stunning turn of events that resulted in a trade to the New York Rangers from the Tampa Bay Lightning last month, Martin St. Louis had difficulty executing a seamless transition with his new club.
Landing on Broadway after a less-than-graceful exit from his long-time home in Tampa, St. Louis struggled to produce. Originally placed with good buddy Brad Richards in hopes of drawing on chemistry between the former Stanley Cup champion teammates, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault toggled the 38-year-old veteran with other lines with similar futility.
At first, St. Louis was still generating chances and setting up his linemates even though he was unable to find the back of the net himself. But then followed stretches where his game failed to yield little offense at all.
It took St. Louis 15 regular-season games for St. Louis to score his first goal as a New York Ranger. When the Rangers entered the final game of the schedule with the playoffs already clinched, Vigneault opted to rest St. Louis in Montreal. He wanted the player to rest, even offering him the option to stay back and spend time with his wife and kids; St. Louis declined and instead chose to be with his teammates.
“Playoffs is another season. I don’t know how he sees it,” Vigneault said on a conference call Wednesday, “but I do think prior to the playoffs, even though Marty wasn’t on the score sheet as much as everybody anticipated, he was still contributing. ... That’s why our record was so good. He’s a big part of our group -- obviously his leadership is helping us as we try to move forward -- and we expect him to continue to play the way he is right now.”
Since the Rangers and Flyers convened for their first-round series last week, St. Louis has re-emerged as the type of elite scoring threat that made the Rangers confident in pulling the trigger March 5 in a blockbuster deal that sent beloved captain Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay in exchange for the defending Art Ross champ.
St. Louis has since tallied two goals in as many games for the Rangers, leading the Blueshirts in playoff scoring with five points. His expert deflection of Dan Girardi’s shot Tuesday night stood up as the game-winner in the team’s 4-1 win over the Flyers on Tuesday, a critical victory that allowed the Rangers to take a 2-1 series lead. St. Louis, who was also nominated as one of three Lady Byng Trophy finalists on Tuesday, now has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in his last 13 playoff games.
“I mean you always want to be on top of your game. It’s a tough thing to do consistently ... you work at it, I’m glad to be helping,” St. Louis said after the game. "Anything you can do to help your team win whether it’s making things happen with the puck or playing well away from it you’re just trying to play your total game this time of year."
Richards, who won a Cup with St. Louis with the Lightning in 2004, could sense the emotional toll that his scoring drought was taking on his friend. Compound the offensive struggles with his new surroundings, intense scrutiny, and lofty expectations, and the pressure just did not relent.
“You get traded for a captain and you know it is an original six market, and there's nothing more you want to do but be a Ranger. He probably just tried a little too hard, and it got to him,” Richards said. “It's good that he finally got to calm down and reset. You knew what he had been through, and eventually it would kick in again. He's getting more comfortable and he's back to being Marty."
Rangers fans will soon know what that means, Richards assured.
"I don't think you got to see the level that Marty can play at during those nineteen games [in the regular season]. You'll see that as it goes on,” Richards said. “I know him as good as anybody, he just wasn't as fluent, he was out of sorts. When your head is full of junk in any sport, you just get out of your own way and you do things that aren't natural and free flowing.”
In trying to assist St. Louis’ acclimation, Richards has tried his best to make his good buddy feel welcome, allowing him to crash in the spare room at Richards’ apartment and making sure the pantry is stocked for the two to share pregame meals. Slowly, St. Louis is finding his bearings.
On the ice, that is starting to pay dividends as well.
“Now it feels like he's part of it now,” Richards said. “It took a while to do that, sometimes it does, he's talking more, he's getting to get to know the guys more and he's being himself off of the ice which will translate back on it.”