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Good times again for Lecavalier-St. Louis duo

BOSTON -- They are as similar as they are different, and yet here they are after all these years.

Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have now been teammates for 10 consecutive NHL seasons. In that time they helped the Tampa Bay Lightning rise from expansion franchise to Stanley Cup champion, then watched it all fall apart before being part of the resurrection.

"We've seen both sides of the mountain," St. Louis said. "We've seen the tough days, the good days, back to the tough days, and now we're finally back where we want to be. It's been great to be on one team for this long, and to be on one team with a guy like Vinny has been awesome. We've gone through a lot of things together."

One was the first pick in the Entry Draft, an 18-year-old kid with the weight of a franchise's expectations immediately placed squarely upon his broad shoulders. The other sat and waited and never heard his name called on draft day, which in part led to four years in college and parts of three seasons in the minor leagues before his arrival in Tampa, Fla., as an unheralded free agent about six weeks after his 25th birthday.

Now they are the old guys -- the two continuous holdovers from a previous era when this organization found the glory the current edition is eight wins away from as the Lightning begin the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night at TD Garden (8 p.m., Versus, CBC, RDS).

"It is nice," Lecavalier said. "It is nice to be able to share something with somebody. I met him at such a young age -- I think I was 20 years old or 21 and he was 25. I've known him even since we were younger and he was playing against my [older] brother. I've known him for a long time, and to be able to share all of our experiences here together, all the ups and the downs -- and there's been a lot of them, so it is nice to share it with somebody."

St. Louis spent four years tearing up the Eastern College Athletic Conference at the University of Vermont, helping the Catamounts to the Frozen Four in 1996, but just as every NHL team passed on him in the Entry Draft, they did so again when his college career was complete.

He spent part of a season playing for the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the International Hockey League before Calgary signed him and sent him to the American Hockey League. Two successful seasons later he was again without a hockey home before Tampa Bay signed him a month into the free agency period.

"A lot of players back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, for guys that were smaller it was really tough and he really battled through that," Lecavalier said. "Not getting drafted with the talent he has, but he's a very determined guy and everywhere he went he was successful. When he came here in Tampa, you could tell right away he was just a guy who needed a chance.

"It doesn't matter your size, you can persevere and you can be one of the best players if not the best player in the League. Now, with the new rules and the faster game, it is definitely right in his path. That's why he's probably even been better than when he was 22, 23 years old."

St. Louis became a scoring champion and League MVP despite his diminutive frame, and has become one of the NHL's most consistent superstars. He has at least 80 points in six of the past seven seasons and at least 94 in four of them.

He's also transitioned into a prominent leadership role. Lecavalier was the captain early in his career, ceded the job to other veterans during Tampa Bay's years as a Cup contender and is now back with the "C" on his sweater. St. Louis has never been this franchise's captain, but it hasn't stopped him from being one of the great leaders in the League.

"I've tried to always be a leader on the ice, but as you get older you become a veteran and I think that is a big responsibility in this League," St. Louis said. "It is passed down from somebody. For me, the opportunity to play with Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor -- those guys are great leaders. Darryl Sydor was another guy. I had a chance to be around those guys when I was a younger guy and learn from them and now it is my turn to pass it down, I feel. When you play in this League for a long time, you have responsibilities not only on the ice but off as well because a lot of the young guys look up to you because you've been through the situations.

"I don't think it is something you just get. I think it is something you earn. You earn the respect of your teammates and that's when the leadership transpires in a good way -- when you have the respect of your teammates. If you don't have that respect, it is probably hard to be a good leader -- it probably goes in one ear and out the other."

Teammates like Steven Stamkos rave about what St. Louis brings to the team.

"I think it is his energy and his work ethic. Obviously everyone knows his size out there on the ice. He's unbelievable. He's the hardest-working guy on this team," Stamkos said. "He's willing to battle out there against anyone of any size. He's one of the best skilled guys in this League and to be doing what he's doing at his age is pretty remarkable. It is an inspiration for us and he's definitely been an inspiration and a mentor for me since I broke into this League. He's taught me a lot both on and off the ice. Usually when Marty is going good, our team is going good."

Lecavalier's career has mirrored the organization he's been synonymous with since the 1998 Entry Draft. He didn't reach stardom instantly, but gradually he grew into the franchise player so many expected him to be and in 2004 helped the Lightning become the first expansion team from the 1990s to capture the Cup.

Near the end of the 2007-08 season, Lecavalier's career veered off path. A hit by Washington's Matt Cooke led to a separated shoulder and a torn labrum. Other injuries to his wrists and hand followed.

Meanwhile, the franchise's status as a Cup contender evaporated with back-to-back last place finishes in the Southeast Division. Amid a huge amount of roster turnover and troubles for a new ownership group came an onslaught of rumors that Lecavalier's days in Tampa were over.

"He's gone through a tough couple of years with all the rumors about him getting traded. That makes it really tough to be successful," St. Louis said. "He set up the standard so high in previous years, and then you try to live up to that standard but mentally you are distracted and constantly have to answer questions about that stuff. It is hard to have a good year with that."

Lecavalier didn't end up being traded, and new owner Jeffrey Vinik has dramatically changed the fortunes of the franchise in short order. New general manager Steve Yzerman has added quality players around Lecavalier, St. Louis and Stamkos. New coach Guy Boucher has them believing in a unique system.

Through all of the change, Lecavalier has looked more like the superstar he was before the injuries. He had 54 points in 65 games in the regular season, and has been a dominant player for the Lightning in this postseason.

"I've always thought Vinny never lost it," Boucher said. "I think he was in a tough situation like a lot of people were the last years for whatever reason. I wasn't here and I'm not here to judge. He needed help like everybody, and he was the first guy who was willing to do anything to get his game back. He's the one who made all the efforts and it is great to see him now because he loves the game. He loves being one of the top players and he certainly is. He's just a force out there. He's been just a monster since I'd say about January.

"He got his game back not just because he believes in what he was before but what he is. I think that's the major part of guys trying to get your game, is don't try to get your game back. You are what you are now. You haven't lost it. There might be a few things you need to do that you weren't doing, and maybe a few new things that you can add onto your game that maybe you weren't doing before so you might be even better than you were before. In Vinny's case, he's a great two-way player right now. I don't even know how many points he gets and I don't really care because that's just part of it. There's a big difference between being a star and a winner, and he certainly he is a winner."

There may have been many nights when St. Louis and Lecavalier thought their long-standing partnership was nearing an end. They had to watch good friend Brad Richards leave, and Lecavalier nearly joined him on the road out of town.

Now, with the help of Stamkos, Boucher and Yzerman, they are back in the NHL spotlight and halfway to reaching the ultimate NHL summit once again.

"I am happy for him he stuck it out and he's playing the way he's playing now," St. Louis said. "He had a great year even if he missed a month or so with an injury. He's really bounced back. I'm glad he stuck it out and he's still here and we can enjoy this together.

Added Lecavalier: "It is great. The last couple years I wasn't sure if I was going somewhere else. For me to be here with this organization, a first-class organization, they really turned it around from being in last place the last couple years. To come back and be where we are right now, it is pretty special. I'm proud to be part of team and a part of this organization and all of the other players feel the same way."