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Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star Marty St. Louis always a clutch performer

The best moments in sports are not measured by a clock. The finest days are not marked by a calendar.

The best times, and the sweetest days, are defined by circumstance and by opportunity. They come when the game is big enough, when the moment is crucial enough, when the team is needy enough. They come when a player rises to the moment and turns it into a memory.

Around here, Lightning fans refer to it as Marty Time.

And with the concept known as a big game returning to his team, it is Marty O'Clock all over again.

He is still a star, Marty St. Louis, and you did not need Tuesday's announcement that he has been invited to his sixth NHL All-Star Game to know it. Even now, when the questions have switched from his size to his age, he is still in charge of the flash and the dash of the Lightning.

Yes, Steven Stamkos is the team's star, and yes, Vinny Lecavalier still has dazzling skills. After all these years, however, St. Louis is still St. Louis, and if the Lightning is going to make a run at the postseason, he figures to be a very important part of it.

If your memory is good enough to remember playoff runs in Tampa Bay, you would not expect anything less.

These are good times for St. Louis, 35 years old going on 25.

The franchise has turned around, and the games matter again, and life at home is terrific. After three years when the Lightning went nowhere, St. Louis is an essential player on a team with possibilities.

He can still go, you know. There is a smattering of gray in his hair, but St. Louis' skates still have gears that most players' do not. He has 53 points (18 goals, 35 assists) in 43 games, which is another way of saying his stick still has stories to tell.

"You don't want to just play in this league," St. Louis said quietly. "You want to play and be a factor. I'm trying to do that every day. Every day you have to prove yourself. Next year it will be the same. When you're young, you have to prove you can play. When you're old, you have to prove you can still play."

Evidently the league is convinced. For a month now, St. Louis' oldest sons, 7-year-old Ryan and 5-year-old Lucas (he also has a 2-year-old, Mason), have been asking if he was going to make the All-Star Game. Tuesday morning he woke them up to tell them, yes, he had made it again. Yes, they were going, too.

For St. Louis, this is another reason hockey has become so rewarding. His kids are big enough to love the game, to talk about it, to enjoy those trips into the locker room with their father. St. Louis loves it, too.

"It's different now," St. Louis said. "Those are the moments that I never had before. I didn't know those moments. It's not just the one playing; it's the whole family. It's very gratifying."

The team turnaround is gratifying, too. Remember, St. Louis was the first player to buy into the new regime of owner Jeff Vinik and general manager Steve Yzerman. After three seasons on a franchise that seemed lost, he was convinced by the team's new direction.

"You could just tell," St. Louis said. "I mean, Steve Yzerman … he had so much credibility."

Over a decade, St. Louis has built up credibility of his own. There is something about some athletes in big games. St. Louis is like that. When the score is tied at 2 and the clock is ticking down, the puck always seems to find his stick.

"He's the Energizer bunny," Stamkos said. "He never stops. He's one of the most skilled guys in the league. I could see him playing into his 40s."

Guy Boucher, the Lightning's coach, puts it this way: "I knew he was in shape when I came, but he's a machine."

Boucher was asked if he would guess St. Louis was 35 by watching him skate. "No way," Boucher said. "Twenty-three, the way he flies around. He's put himself through crazy training. You aren't born with that."

How has St. Louis stayed young? He jokes that hockey players grow up slowly. The immaturity of the room can keep a man young. Maybe, too, it is his training. And maybe it is that insatiable drive to prove his doubters wrong.

"In the beginning, I had something to prove every day," he said. "Not that I don't have something to prove now. But now I don't worry about whether people think I can play or not. I worry if I'm going to be the difference."

From the looks of it, he'll get his chances. Ask yourself this: When was the last game the Lightning played that is as big as tonight's game against Washington? Probably it was sometime during the 2007 playoffs. Lately, things have been quiet.

"Big games are nice," St. Louis said. "Especially when you're down the stretch and you're close to the playoffs. The closer you get to the no-tomorrow date, the better. I know points in October are as good as points late in the season, but when you get close to that deadline, you can see more clearly."

Oh, this run won't just be about St. Louis. Stamkos has to continue to be one of the top three players in the league. Lecavalier needs to get healthy and do his part. The goaltending has to hold up. And so on.

As usual, however, there is a large part of the second half of the season on St. Louis. Soon enough, there will be a clutch moment in a winnable game, and it will come back to a familiar face.

Marty Time.

You can set your watch by it.

Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star Marty St. Louis always a clutch performer 01/11/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 7:35am]
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