TAMPA, Fla. — On a night when the new Tampa Bay Lightning were introduced to their home crowd, with Jon Cooper working through his first October hockey as a head coach at the NHL level, there was comforting consistency found with captain Marty St. Louis.
The Lightning routed the Florida Panthers 7-2, with Steven Stamkos receiving most of the attention with his sixth career hat trick. But St. Louis, Tampa Bay’s heart at 38 years old, walked through the Lightning’s dressing room late Thursday in a blue blazer and dress pants with slight stubble on his chin after completing his first home game with the respected “C.”
The title is a matter of semantics, of course. St. Louis has served, proudly, as a de-facto captain here for many years. He received the honor earlier this month, and the choice made so much sense it’s not worth debating.
Hockey is a game tradition and respect, both acknowledged after they’re earned. St. Louis has accepted a title that reflects how his teammates value him. But a mark of his leadership in found in this fact: The men who skate alongside him would view him no differently if the captainship belonged to someone else.
Respect earned is part of his resume.
“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” St. Louis said of skating as a captain at home for the first time. “I would say we have great fans. Being captain on this team, it’s how I can play. I will try to do the best I can for this team.”
The reigning Art Ross Trophy winner enjoyed a productive home opener. With a goal and assist in the first period, he surpassed Bobby Orr for 94th on the all-time NHL scoring list. Now, he has 917 career points. But he has said time and time again he’d rather put team success over individual gains.
There is a sense of selflessness with his stardom, especially when paired with Stamkos’ production. Last season, Tampa Bay wasted Stamkos and St. Louis finishing as the NHL’s top-two points earners. The Lightning can’t afford to do that again, but they know both stars will remain cornerstones this season.
“We’re the guys that are leaders and can be counted on in all situations. With Coop, he’s talked about that since Day 1 — that he wants us to be those guys,” Stamkos said. “All you can ask for is an opportunity. Obviously, you want to run with it. Tonight was a good start, and you want to keep it up.”
This, indeed, was a start. There is a feeling of transition at Tampa Bay Times Forum this fall. For the first time in 14 seasons, Vinny Lecavalier didn’t skate onto the home ice wearing a Lightning jersey, his departure in June because of a compliance buyout a reality of the $7.727 million-per-season hit his contract counted against Tampa Bay’s salary cap.
Now, he’s in Philadelphia, but his legacy here lives.
It remains to be seen how much Lecavalier’s absence will affect the Lightning. Still, St. Louis is a fine choice as the franchise’s ninth captain. He has the look of a grizzled leader with the production to complement the persona: In 48 games last season, his 60 points were only 14 fewer than he earned in 77 contests the year before. He’s a bit of a timeless wonder, his intensity failing to lose flavor with age, like a strong wine.
St. Louis should keep the Lightning grounded. With the victory, they are 3-1, the same position they enjoyed last season on their way to a 6-1 start. They outscored opponents 19-8 in that stretch, which proved to be fool’s gold on their way to finishing 18-26-4 in a lockout-shortened campaign plagued by goal-tending issues.
In this run, the Lightning have outscored opponents 14-9, though they have won in much more cardiac fashion. St. Louis’ goal Thursday marked the Lightning’s first lead in regulation this season, a remarkable development.
After losing to the Boston Bruins to start the season, they beat the Chicago Blackhawks in a shootout. Then they topped the Buffalo Sabres in overtime. They had lacked the offensive flair of last season’s quick start, at least before Thursday’s outburst.
“They’re going to be great, and they’re going to do that a lot of nights,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said of Stamkos and St. Louis. “As long as we can play well defensively, they’re going to score a lot of goals, and we’re going to win a lot of games.”
But a winning streak’s personality, of course, never translates to extra points. The bottom line remains the same: Momentum must be maintained. That’s where St. Louis comes in.
“He was our captain,” Cooper said. “He controlled the power play. … He controlled the puck. He didn’t panic. He’s got a lot of poise in his game. There’s a reason he’s Marty St. Louis.”
He is reason alone for the Lightning to look toward the future as they are molded within Cooper’s vision. After the final horn had sounded Thursday, AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” played over the loudspeakers. Lights were dimmed, and St. Louis skated around center ice, his stick raised, his mission accomplished for the night.
The captain, who was captain-like for so many years, had completed his home debut with that venerable “C” stitched above his left shoulder.
Of course, a single letter — and a mere title — fails to capture his full value.