-- The last time Martin St. Louis
came to Madison Square Garden, he left the arena a bloody mess with his career, and perhaps the quality of his life, in danger.
During the Tampa Bay Lightning
's morning skate here on Dec. 8, St. Louis and teammate Dominic Moore
were taking part in a drill they had done a million times. It was a 2-on-1 rush with very little defensive pressure. St. Louis dished the puck to Moore and curled behind the net. A backhand try by Moore from the right post flew high and wide, catching an unsuspecting St. Louis in the left eye.
Bloodied and afraid, St. Louis skated to the locker room with a towel pressed against his face.
The 36-year-old would miss that night's game against the Rangers, but only four more after that due to facial fractures. He didn't avoid Moore's errant shot, but he knows he certainly dodged a bullet.
St. Louis isn't big on reliving the incident, so he kept this thoughts about it brief Thursday morning as the Lightning prepare to face the East-leading Rangers.
"I'm just happy I can see," St. Louis said.
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St. Louis was forced to wear a visor upon returning, and it's done nothing to impair his ability to put points on the score sheet. In 20 games, he has 7 goals and 20 assists, including a hat trick in Tampa Bay's 6-3 win against the Panthers on Saturday. The Lightning are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, injecting life into their playoffs hopes that were close to flat-lining before the All-Star break.
The veteran isn't any more enthusiastic about wearing the visor than he is talking about what caused him to go that route for what he says will be the rest of his career, but he admitted there was a slight adjustment.
"A little bit," said St. Louis, who wore a full cage when he first came back and has some experience behind a visor playing for Canada at the World Championship. "You see the ice a little different. You feel like you're playing behind something. But it doesn't take long until you don't feel it."
Despite missing those five games, St. Louis still ranks 17th in the NHL with 49 points; his 1.04 points per game rank ninth.
As wonderful as it was for coach Guy Boucher
to get arguably his best player back so quickly from such a scary incident, hockey was the last thing on his mind when he saw St. Louis leave for a hospital after practice two months ago.
"To be honest with you, when it happened, I was just scared for him," Boucher said. "I didn't really think of hockey. I didn't know what was going on with his eye. I was hearing all kinds of different versions. I was just thinking of the man. He's a good person and he's got a life outside hockey. That's a lot more important for me than it is to come back fast. After that, when we found out it was getting better, you want him back. But it was always about him feeling it, not about us pushing for him to come back."
A similar injury occurred to Vancouver's Manny Malhotra
last season when he was hit in the eye with a puck. The original prognosis was far less encouraging than that of St. Louis, as Malhotra thought his career may have been over. But he returned for the Stanley Cup Final after missing 29 games and, just like St. Louis, is playing today with a visor.
St. Louis' injury wasn't as severe, and Boucher said he's not the least bit surprised by his player's ability to adapt and return to form instantly.
"Marty's Marty," Boucher said. "That's what Marty is -- a gamer, a warrior, one of those guys who shows up when you don't expect. That's why today, I always expect him to be what he is."
A healthy and productive St. Louis will be a necessity if the Lightning are to avoid missing the postseason after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. St. Louis is relying on the wisdom of Adrian from the Rocky movies, quoting her "just win" line from "Rocky II."
Boucher is taking a similar approach, focusing on his team and not worrying about the teams they need to pass to jump from 13th in the East to eighth.
"We have to keep on winning and winning," Boucher said. "I think we don't want to focus on other teams, period. We don't want to chase anybody. We can't control what other teams do. Some days we're up because some team lost and you think you're going to win your next game, then you lose your game and you're down again. That's the thing you want to avoid.
"We have to be even-keeled about what we have to do, and that's what we've been doing. The last eight games, we haven't focused on who's doing what. We've gotten our game better, we've gotten some injured guys back. We have desperation, and that's something we can't give away. Desperation is the key to every team right now."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo