St. Louis as great as ever at Game No. 1,000

Published November 19 2013
Updated November 19 2013

How in the world did little Marty St. Louis get here?

Tonight, the Lightning captain plays in his 1,000th National Hockey League game.

A thousand games. That's a big deal in hockey circles. Not many have made it that far. Fewer than 300, in fact.

So you look at St. Louis and you don't understand how he has done it. It makes no sense.

He wasn't drafted. His first team gave up on him. He's listed at 5 feet 8, but he must have been wearing skates when they measured him. He's a decent skater, but not a burner. His shot is good, but not wicked.

There is only one thing that makes St. Louis special. He simply knows how to play the game.

And now — once again and more than ever — the Lightning turns to the 38-year-old to save the season.

With Steven Stamkos out indefinitely with a broken leg, the Lightning needs the best player in franchise history to be its best player right now.

Yet, the funny thing is, St. Louis always has been the Lightning's best player. We seem to forget that.

For years, the Lightning was considered Vinny's team, as in Vinny Lecavalier.

Some used to consider it Richey's team, as in Brad Richards.

Recently, we've looked at it as Stammer's team, as in Stamkos.

But, really, all along, it has been Marty's team.

He's the one with two scoring titles, a remarkable eight seasons apart. He's the one with a league MVP on the back of his hockey card. He has the Stanley Cup ring and six All-Star Game appearances.

He's the leader. The heart. The soul.

This is his team. Then and now and for nearly 1,000 games in between.

"I don't think we need to say anything more about Marty, about what a great team leader he is, and how he has been in the community,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He's an unreal human.''

When he joined the Lightning as an off-the-discount-rack free agent in 2000, St. Louis was little more than a little guy with an odd name we weren't quite sure how to pronounce. He didn't have much of a past and few thought he had much of a future, especially after he suffered a broken leg.

But he soon was a league MVP and scoring champ sipping champagne out of Lord Stanley's Cup.

Since then, he has kept plugging along, scoring nearly a point a game for Tampa Bay.

He has plugged along despite the one time a shot in practice hit his hand and split open his finger, forcing doctors to remove his fingernail and stitch up his nail bed. Gross! He was supposed to be out a couple of weeks. He missed two games.

He has plugged along despite the one time he was hit in the face with a shot during a morning skate. His nose had to be pushed back in place, his eyes were practically swollen shut. He was supposed to be out for weeks. He missed five games.

Since the start of the 2002-03 season, St. Louis has missed only seven of 724 regular-season games, making him one of the most dependable players in hockey. He looks as good now at 38 as he ever has, with 20 points in the first 20 games.

But his biggest problem at the moment is the absence of someone else, that being Stamkos, his friend and linemate.

"Not having him around off the ice, on the ice, it's different,'' St. Louis said. "But it's part of the game. … Like I said, we got to move forward and go to work. It's going to be, maybe, a little bit of a different game for me. But I take it as a challenge. And hopefully I can lead the way.''

Here's what you worry about when it comes to St. Louis — that he will try to do too much.

If St. Louis has a flaw, it's that he sometimes gets into his own head. Missed scoring chances eat away at him. He notices when he goes a game without scoring. A two-game drought can turn into a four-game slump. He recently had a five-game scoreless streak, but he has a goal and three assists in the past two games, both without Stamkos.

"The thing I tell Marty is, 'Just don't put all that pressure on yourself because we've got other guys who are going to be able to help you out,' " Cooper said. "He's extremely close to Stammer. They've played on the same line for most parts of five years. If there is anybody it is going to hit hard, it would be him. But I tell you, in the end, it's about winning with him and that's what makes him the guy he is.''

For nearly 14 years, St. Louis has been the Lightning's smallest player and biggest star. He needs to be that again this season.

You watch, he will be. You would expect nothing less.

Just look at the past 999 games and it makes perfect sense.