The 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs was the first extended run through the NHL postseason for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis.
St. Louis was 29 then, but in only his fourth season as a full-time NHL player. And while he won the Art Ross Trophy for finishing with a League-high 94 points, he knew it was the team's veterans that were going to set the tone in the playoffs -- among them team captain Dave Andreychuk, forward Tim Taylor and defenseman Darryl Sydor.
"It was amazing to have those guys to guide us through the ups and downs," St. Louis said. "You're a young guy, you don't have that experience. You look up to those guys, they've been through it. You watch those guys on TV. They've been through it and when things don't go well you can't wait for them to say something. And when things go well, they're the ones that keep things in perspective and calm you down."
Now a 35-year-old with 12 seasons under his belt, St. Louis -- along with current captain Vincent Lecavalier, also a member of the '04 championship team -- has moved into the role of elder statesman on a team packed with younger players. Of the 23 players to get into a game for the Lightning during this playoff run, eight -- among them Steven Stamkos, Sean Bergenheim and Victor Hedman -- were making their NHL postseason debuts. Plus youngsters Mattias Ritola (one game) and Steve Downie (six games) were relative playoff newcomers.
So when this edition of the Lightning has gone through the ups and downs that come with every postseason run, those youngsters have turned to St. Louis for guidance.
"You try to keep even-keeled," St. Louis said. "That's a tough thing to say in the playoffs. You win one game, you feel you're going all the way, and you lose one, you feel you're out. Keeping things even-keeled, those guys taught me that and I know we've passed that along to this group."
For St. Louis, he learned his way through the playoffs during that 2004 title run. The Lightning had to withstand an experienced, veteran Philadelphia Flyers team that rallied to win Game 6 in overtime in the Eastern Conference Finals and then survive a pair of elimination games against the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Final.
"Going through in '04, two Game 7s, in the conference final and the Stanley Cup Final, being down 3-2 to Calgary," St. Louis said, "the leaders, Tim and Sydor and Dave, they really helped keep the guys' eyes on the prize. Not worry about the wins and losses, stay focused, keep the task at hand, move forward regardless of the previous outcome."
That's the advice St. Louis passed along to his teammates in the first round when the Lightning fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in their first-round series.
"Going down 3-1 to Pittsburgh early we really had to learn quick and mature quick," St. Louis said. "I think the leadership definitely helped that."
Bergenheim, who has emerged as a surprise scoring sensation for the Lightning, said St. Louis' guidance was perfect.
"I think when we were down 3-1, you saw … I can't remember, somebody asked about the big players -- Lecavalier, St. Louis and all them -- the importance of them," Bergenheim said. "I thought when we were down 3-1 and them going through situations like that before, I think it was huge for our young team. Them talking about how there's a chance and just taking it one game at a time. From that we learned a lot. The importance of those players, I think that's a great example of them -- how important they are." St. Louis said it's a bit too soon to compare what he, Lecavalier and the Lightning's other veterans have done as compared to the 2004 title team. All the current team has done, he's said, is win two playoff rounds.
"The similarity is we have some good young players hungry to be successful, and we have a great mix of veteran leadership, as well and obviously great goaltending," St. Louis said. "Lot of similarities, but at the same time there's a lot of differences, too. People always want to compare the two teams -- every time you win a playoff round they want to compare the two teams. I think they're both great teams. The '04 team, we won the whole thing, you can't compare. When it's all said and done you can compare the two teams then. It's hard to compare them right now.
"As a team, we won two playoff rounds, but we still have a long way to go to be where that '04 team was. At the same time, do I feel as good as about my team now as I did in '04? Absolutely. We're relentless, we're hungry, we have a good mix of young guys, veterans, a lot of leadership. I'm definitely excited about that."
Now with more days behind him than ahead of him, St. Louis, as well as Lecavalier, fully understands he is just as important off the ice as on it.
"I was very fortunate to have the chance to play with those guys and learn from them and pass it along to our younger players," St. Louis said, "and they'll pass it along to other players when it's their turn. Gong through the playoffs, your experience, that's when you mature as a player. I'm excited about what our young guys are going through."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK