He is the Allen Iverson of his sport, vaulting himself headlong into harm's way with a determination that looks like anger but feels like righteousness.
Martin St. Louis dares go where much larger players fear, both on the ice and in his own heart. He has seen the darkness of a life without pro hockey, and so the darkness of a Friday in late May without hockey is nothing to him. In Game 6 Wednesday, just like in his entire unlikely career, the 5-foot-8 St. Louis played as big as the moment, even when the moment became too much for others to bear.
St. Louis stood up before the Lightning's fourth elimination game of these playoffs and spoke to his teammates. Then he delivered for them not only by scoring the two biggest goals of a 5-4 win over Boston, but by barreling his way into places reserved for low blows, lowered shoulders, and nasty cross-checks. That's nothing new for him, as he literally meets all that violence at eye level. How many other Hart Trophy candidates can say they are among their team leaders in blocked shots?
Forget the game-winning goal, which St. Louis scored right after Boston closed to within one midway through the third period. It was both clutch and pretty -- a give-and-go with Steve Downie. Forget the huge power-play tally that tied it in the second when it looked like the Bruins were ready to run away to Vancouver for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. And forget the three points St. Louis scored on a night when anything less would have meant season's end.
Instead, let's talk about where St. Louis was for most of the night: in the slot, getting chopped; in the high zone, chasing down Patrice Bergeron from behind; in the corners, chiseling away; and actually in the net, smartly ducking for cover early in the third while linemate Steven Stamkos fired the puck at the 26 on his curled-up back.
That was just another elbow-grease play for St. Louis -- diving at the cage but having the mental sharpness in the fog of war to avoid getting an interference call against his team for impeding Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. How important was that play? Stamkos, who scored to give his team a two-goal lead, actually said "Thank God" when asked about it.
Surely the entire team says that about St. Louis, who went undrafted and was considered useless by the Calgary Flames before becoming so important to the Lightning that it's hard to think of anyone who embodies the franchise more than he does. Let's face it -- the team is slightly thin on defense, young enough to get nervous in important games and not exactly burly. Why is this five-seed 4-0 in elimination games? Yes, part of it is goalie Dwayne Roloson and another part is coach Guy Boucher. But a bigger part is St. Louis -- who Stamkos calls the "heart and soul" of the club.
This is the part where we usually talk about how St. Louis' up-from-nowhere tale is no surprise to those who knew him way back when. But sorry -- that's not even true for St. Louis. Even Tom Brady, who famously slipped to the sixth round in the NFL Draft, had a large number of pundits beating the drum for him. Not St. Louis. When asked if he thought his star player could be what he is today, former Vermont coach Mike Gilligan says, "No." And when asked the same question, Gilligan's assistant, Joe Gervais says, "I don't think anyone thought he would be a Hart Trophy winner."
Oh sure, the Vermont coaching staff screamed to any scout who would listen that St. Louis deserved a shot in the pros. "I always heard he was too small and he’ll never transfer into the NHL," says Roger Grillo, who recruited St. Louis to Vermont. "I told them I thought they were nuts. But a lot of people didn't believe in him. Hey, if you miss a big guy, it's OK. But if you miss on a small guy, you miss."
So the entire NHL missed on a small guy, but really they're still missing the point. St. Louis is wonderfully gifted as a passer, and his speed is breathtaking, but that raw skill covers up his truest gift -- the ability to make tough plays in tough places. It was amusing on Wednesday to see Zdeno Chara hovering over Roloson at one end of the ice and little St. Louis trying to do the same at the other end. But both are equally disruptive. Most people just don't see that.
Even Gilligan, who watched St. Louis for four years, says he'd pick former Vermont and Tampa teammate Eric Perrin to score a big goal over St. Louis. Most watchers of the Catamounts lumped Perrin and St. Louis together, and figured they worked better as a duo than apart -- like the Sedin twins. But then too, it was St. Louis who was raising the level of his linemates by doing gritty things when no one was looking.
St. Louis is doing it again this season with Stamkos, who suddenly looked both more relaxed and more lethal when put on St. Louis' line midway through this season. "You see how hard Marty works during the game," Stamkos says, "but you don't see what happens in the room. He's the first guy to step up and get the guys going. He's obviously been through every type of experience and every single type of championship you could win. He's been there."
You'd think having "been there" would calm St. Louis down, but no. He's still upset over a controversial hand pass that cost Vermont a shot at the NCAA title in his junior year. St. Louis has a Stanley Cup, but he still burns over that slight like he burns over all the others. That's the emotional equivalent of the slot or the corners -- the place others avoid but St. Louis drifts toward to fight battles old and new.
St. Louis was unstoppable at Vermont, but that was back in the era of hook and hold, clutch and grab. Even in college, he had obstacles few noticed.
"We put him out there as much as he could take," says Gervais. "He had an endless amount of energy. He got absolutely mugged. And he made such an impact despite rules not being in his favor. If he was playing (here) now, it would have been more dramatic."
But it wasn't just that St. Louis was a diamond in the rough, waiting to shine. No, St. Louis was made more of a diamond as things got more rough. He got better from getting dumped by Calgary, and got better still by going through the nightmarish lull between contending teams in Tampa. Teammate Ryan Malone says it's staggering how much St. Louis studies opponents, almost like a psychotic college football coach. Crazy thing is, he did it when the Lightning weren't that good.
"He had a couple years where he wasn't happy," says former teammate Chris Dingman. "But he didn't complain."
No, he used it as fuel. And that is fuel he's spending right now -- in the slot, in the crease, even in the net on his rear.
"He's stronger," says Gilligan. "Quicker. I thought in the first round of playoffs he was as quick as I've ever seen him. I never thought he could get smarter. But he looks at the game like he's seeing it from above the ice surface. At a much higher level than in college. I'm amazed at what he sees."
What he sees is some pretty ugly sides to this lovely game. But that's more than fine. Because right now St. Louis sees one game to earn the right to play for the Stanley Cup, and he sees nothing to fear.
"Those are the games that gets your fire going," he says, "and those are the ones you want to play in. The do-or-die games."
Of course St. Louis wants to play in those games. Those are the only games he's ever known.