Sunday, May 30, 2004

CALGARY — Few noticed four years ago when the Calgary Flames waived Martin St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning took a chance on the undersized right wing a month later.

Everyone is noticing St. Louis now. After blossoming into an All-Star last season, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound dynamo, who wasn’t drafted out of the University of Vermont, led the NHL with 56 assists and 94 points this season and went into last night’s Game3 of the Stanley Cup Finals topping the postseason in both categories with 14 assists and 21 points. He did not score last night.

Calgary right wing Chris Clark, who played with him at St. John’s of the American Hockey League, said St. Louis was “too good for the minors.” But with just 20 points in 69 games over parts of two years, St. Louis didn’t do enough to impress the Flames.

“When Marty came up [in October 1998], the people who had played with him in the minors couldn’t stop talking about how good he was,” said Calgary star Jarome Iginla, who’s competing with St. Louis for MVP of the season and of the playoffs. “He’s a great skater with great puckhandling skills. You could see that he was going to be a good player, but I don’t know if you knew that he’s going to go on to win the scoring title. Marty’s a very nice guy, too. It’s good to see him do so well, but hopefully not in this series.”

St. Louis has no ill will toward the Flames, especially since coach Brian Sutter (brother of current coach Darryl Sutter) and general manager Craig Button have been fired.

“I truly think it worked out for me in Calgary,” St. Louis said.

“I wasn’t drafted. I had nothing. They gave me an opportunity to reach my dream, and I relished that. I was playing more of a checking role, but if that was the role that was going to [keep] me in the NHL, that’s what I was going to do. Then things happened for a reason. I moved on, and who would have thought that we would all be here now? There’s no hard feelings. I don’t feel it’s revenge. I’m very happy that they gave me a chance to reach my dream.”

Turning point

In its first playoff series in seven years, Tampa Bay was whipped by visiting Washington by a cumulative 9-3 in the first two games of the 2003 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. But the Lightning won Game3 in overtime at MCI Center — after controversial penalties left the Capitals two men down in overtime — and went on to win the next three games and the series before falling in the next round to eventual champion New Jersey.

“If we’re out in four games, what did we accomplish?” Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said. “Coming back in that series was incredibly important to where we are right now. If we don’t win the Washington series, we don’t have any frame of reference to try to build on.

“Winning that series built our confidence. To a man, the players said at their exit meetings last year that they really felt we were close [to being a top team]. If we hadn’t lost Game5 to the Devils in triple-overtime, we know we would have won Game6 back here, and then you’re playing a Game7 and who knows what happens?”

Gelinas’ magic

Though most of the players in the finals never have been this far, it’s old hat for Calgary’s Martin Gelinas, who won the Cup as a 19-year-old Edmonton rookie in 1990 and skated for Vancouver in 1994 and Carolina in 2002.

“The first one, I didn’t truly appreciate it,” Gelinas said. “It was my first year and I took it for granted. I was surrounded by great players: Mark Messier, Glen Anderson, Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, the list goes on and on. I was just playing without realizing what an opportunity I had.”

Gelinas scored the goals that won each of Calgary’s first three series, tying a record set by Edmonton’s Ken Linseman in 1984. Gelinas, who had a similar score for Carolina in 2002, is tied for third all-time with four series-clinchers.

The only players with more are New York Islanders Hall of Famer Mike Bossy (six) and the New York Rangers’ Messier, Detroit’s Brett Hull and Philadelphia’s Jeremy Roenick (five apiece).

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