They always believed they'd be back. They just never figured it would take this long. Or be like this. Marty St. Louis, 38, the greatest player in Lightning history, and good friend Brad Richards, 34, Tampa Bay's only Conn Smythe winner, are four wins from a second Stanley Cup. And they're doing it in Rangers blue. Together. With the 10-year anniversary of the Lightning's Game 7 win in the Stanley Cup final coming up Saturday, St. Louis and Richards have made it back after Thursday's 1-0 win over the Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden. As streamers fell from the raucous rafters, Marty and Richie hugged during the euphoric on-ice celebration, fans chanting, "We want the Cup! We want the Cup!" "This is the reason why I came here," St. Louis said outside the team's dressing room, wearing his Eastern Conference champions T-shirt. " This is what I thought about when I came here. I thought that this group had the key element for this kind of experience. I thought I could add something. It's tough to leave a team that you've been there for 13, 14 years, but it makes everything right, right now."
It might never be right to Lightning fans, who are still stung St. Louis, the team's captain, forced his March trade to New York.
The wing realizes some don't like it or understand his reasons; whether it was being closer to his family's Greenwich, Conn., home or the rift with general manager Steve Yzerman over Team Canada. He just hopes they eventually respect it.
Considering the month he has been through, St. Louis wants to live in the moment. The long-time heart and soul of the Lightning has been an inspirational force for his new team with a team-high 13 postseason points (six goals, seven assists). The Rangers, who finished with the fifth-most points in the East, rallied around St. Louis after the death of his mother, France, on May 8, to make an improbable run.
It included overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to Pittsburgh in the East semifinals.
St. Louis said he talked to his mother during the third period of Thursday's clincher.
"It's unbelievable," St. Louis said. "If you would have told me May 8, when my mom passed, it would have been tough to believe. We rallied, and the boys were awesome."
St. Louis said Richards has been an especially huge help through both his transition and tragedy. The two, fast friends since Lightning training camp in 2000, remained close through Richards' trade to the Stars in February 2008 and signing with the Rangers in 2011.
"It's hard to believe. Ten years goes by so quick," said Richards (who has five goals and six assists in the postseason). "We were just talking about how we definitely thought we'd be back after winning in Tampa. And the lockout and all that stuff happened and the salary cap and the team just didn't stay together too long. Never would have thought we'd be here today in New York doing it. Even to start the season, I never imagined Marty being here.
"So the fact that all of that has come (together), it's great. Obviously, Marty and I go back a long way. And we don't want it to be about us. But it's still a pretty cool feeling."
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There was a question if Richards would be back in New York this season.
The center struggled last season, languishing on the fourth line and hitting rock bottom when John Tortorella — coach of the Lightning's Cup team — made him a healthy scratch for two games of the East semifinals. Some analysts speculated the Rangers would buy him out.
St. Louis invited Richards to train with him in Connecticut last summer, invigorating his buddy in workouts with long-time trainer Ben Prentiss. Richards bounced back with 20 goals this season and became the de facto captain when Ryan Callahan was traded for St. Louis.
When the Rangers fell behind 3-1 to the Penguins, it was Richards who spoke up during the postgame players-only meeting, telling the team, "You just have to win one game and everything changes."
"For both of them to go through what they've went through, both had their ups and downs, it's a great story," said Prentiss, St. Louis' good friend. "To come together and make the run that nobody thought they would."
Everything changed for St. Louis on May 8, when he found out at the Pittsburgh airport his mother died. He flew back to his hometown outside of Montreal to be with his family but returned for Game 5 against the Penguins, saying his mom would want him to play. Three days later, on Mother's Day, St. Louis scored a goal in a Game 6 victory.
After completing the comeback, he and his teammates attended France's funeral, St. Louis delivering a moving 20-minute eulogy, sharing stories in English and French in a speech Prentiss said he'll "never forget."
"She's definitely helped me," St. Louis said. "I know when this is all stopped, it's going to probably hit me more."
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When St. Louis scored the winning goal in overtime of Game 4 against the Canadiens, ripping a top-shelf wrist shot from the right circle, Richards said it reminded him of St. Louis' goal in double-overtime of Game 6 against Calgary in the 2004 Stanley Cup final, arguably the greatest goal in Lightning history.
"I've jumped on him a couple of times in overtime, and it never gets old," Richards said. "It's fun moments you'll never forget."
Dave Andreychuk, the captain of the Cup team, said he's happy for St. Louis and Richards and hopes he's not the only one.
"I totally understand a lot of Lightning fans would be a little bitter against Marty, and it's justified," said Andreychuk, now the Lightning's vice president for corporate and community affairs. "At times, I feel the same way, too. But I try to look past it and realize what a great soldier he's been for the organization and what he's done for us.
"Time will heal."
St. Louis believed he would have another shot at the Cup with the Lightning in 2011, but it lost 1-0 to the Bruins in Game 7 of the East final.
"I cried on the ice because I knew how hard it was to get there," St. Louis said. "You give everything you have, and you fall short. It's tough to take. Now to take my second time, I'm back on the good side. It's a great feeling."
After the celebrations and interviews, it was just after midnight Thursday when St. Louis and Richards, dressed in suits, finally left Madison Square Garden, getting into the same black Lincoln town car. As it made a left turn, fans in Rangers jerseys yelled, "Way to go, Richards!"
And then they disappeared, together, into another New York night.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.