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Rangers hope slow start is in St. Louis' rear-view

by Tal Pinchevsky

Following the first trade of his 15-year NHL career, Martin St. Louis figured there would be a tough transition.

During 13 memorable seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he won the Stanley Cup, a Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player and two Art Ross Trophies as the League's leading scorer. Then, on March 5, he was traded to the New York Rangers. The fact that St. Louis wanted the trade did not make the move any easier.

Professionally, the trade was seen as a move that could potentially put the Rangers over the top in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Personally, it was a time of great upheaval for the star.

St. Louis slumped early in his Rangers tenure, but his recent play is giving fans hope that the Stanley Cup could be coming back to Broadway for the first time in 20 years.

He appears to be hitting his stride as the Rangers prepare to play the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In his first few weeks as a Ranger, St. Louis went without a goal in his first 14 games and had four points in his first 17 games. That's a steep drop-off for the player who led the League in scoring last season.

"It's been a transition. But I think every day I feel more close to normalcy. I think for three or four weeks there was a lot of moving parts," St. Louis told "I feel now more into a routine. The family is all settled in. it's nice to get that normalcy feeling."

Off the ice, normalcy came as his family grew accustomed to him being around more at their Connecticut home, where St. Louis has long spent his offseasons. On the ice, normalcy returned in the form of a three-assist performance on April 8 in a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes. Two nights later, St. Louis set up Rick Nash's game-winner with 1:42 remaining to give New York a 2-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres.

It was a breakout week for the newest Ranger. For center Brad Richards, who won the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay with St. Louis in 2004, it hardly came as a surprise.

"I said it when he first got here, every day he'll continue to get more comfortable," Richards said. "Just coming into this rink and this city every day, [there are] little things you usually don't have to worry about in other cities. Things will just slowly become more natural and he'll be himself. Now the playoffs will up his excitement even more."

St. Louis sat out New York's regular-season finale Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens, giving him more time to focus on the playoffs. It will be his first postseason run anywhere other than Tampa and he's looking forward to it.

"I think it will be a lot of fun," he said. "This is obviously a big market; nothing better than playing the playoffs in a big market. I'm excited about it. This is a team that plays really hard, we play a playoff-style of hockey. We're not going to have to turn the switch on when the playoffs start. We're a tough team to play against."

Two games isn't much of a sample size, but if St. Louis has snapped his slump it couldn't have come at a better time. It was definitely an uncharacteristic slump for one of the League's most consistent offensive players. St. Louis even went six games without a point, his longest such skid in six years. Last season, he never went more than one game without registering a point.

Like everything else surrounding his first few games with New York, the lack of production took some getting used to.

"When you don't feel like yourself out there as a player there is definitely a frustration factor," St. Louis said. "The good thing is the team has been playing really well. We're winning games. It helped me stay positive and bought me time to get my feet underneath me and get comfortable.

"I think everybody has been pretty supportive, the players and staff. We're all in this together and trying to help each other out and be the best we can be."

The early slump with the Rangers was certainly difficult for St. Louis. But considering how his illustrious NHL career began, he's been through a lot worse.

St. Louis was not drafted during a stellar career at the University of Vermont and started his pro career, in 1997, with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the now-defunct International Hockey League. He eventually caught on with the Calgary Flames, earning a spot on the roster after starting in the American Hockey League.

After two seasons split between the NHL and AHL, St. Louis was left unprotected in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft; no one took him.

He was then bought out by the Flames before signing with Tampa Bay. Less than four years later he was a Cup champion and League MVP.

"I came into the League kind of not through the front door. Every day I fought to get another day," St. Louis said. "I guess that becomes ingrained in you. That's the only way you know how to go about things."

St. Louis hadn't been humbled like that in a while. But four points in 17 games after being traded to an Original Six franchise with championship aspirations can have a similar effect on a person; even an Olympic gold-medalist and six-time All-Star.

"It's tough to come on a new team and be yourself instantly," he said. "The players need to get to know you and you need to get to know them. I haven't had to do that in a long time. It kind of reminds me a little bit of my early years in the NHL. I feel acclimated but I still think that time will only help that."

The Rangers are hoping their newest star can continue a rapid acclimation. For the player who hasn't won the Stanley Cup in 10 years and the franchise that hasn't won it in 20, the best may be yet to come.

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