Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - It can be difficult for those of us who grew up in an Original Six city to think about the Tampa Bay Lightning in terms of history and tradition.

And yet there was a huge chunk of it, in the flesh, sitting at his locker after practice yesterday, answering questions from a gaggle of journalists.

That is because Martin St. Louis plays for the Rangers now and finds himself the most intriguing subplot of the Eastern Conference finals, which begin today at the Garden.

St. Louis is a future Hall of Famer who played for the Lightning from 2000-14 and won a Stanley Cup there in 2004, when he was the NHL's MVP.

He also will turn 40 next month, is due to become a free agent soon thereafter, has a grand total of zero goals in 12 playoff games this spring and was benched by coach Alain Vigneault late in regulation time of Game 7 against the Capitals.

So . . . there's a lot to chew over here.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Mostly, St. Louis sought to downplay the notion that facing the team with which he is closely associated will add any motivation for him.

"I know, obviously, the history, and everybody's going to make a story out of it, and rightfully so," he said. "But for me it's just a team that's standing in my way now and I'm going to try to help my team do everything to win."

St. Louis said he still has friends on the Lightning and was flattered that some have said nice things about him since the matchup was set, but he added, "We have the rest of our lives to be friends."

Not believed to be on St. Louis' friends list is Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, whose relationship with his former star began to fray after Yzerman, also the GM of Team Canada, initially left St. Louis off the 2014 Canadian Olympic roster.

St. Louis eventually asked for a trade, specifically to the Rangers, and got it in March of last year.

@Newsday

So what might happen if he and Yzerman run into one another during the series? "I don't know," St. Louis said. "I'm going to focus on the play on the ice right now."

Of more immediate relevance is St. Louis' relationship with Vigneault, who for a spell late in the finale against the Capitals replaced him on the top line with J.T. Miller.

"I thought I played some good hockey early on in that series and didn't get rewarded, but overall I feel good about my game," St. Louis said. "Of course coaches make decisions at a key time in the game for whatever reason. I've never liked being left on the bench at a certain time, but that's just reality.

"If I liked it, I don't think I would be here today. Nobody likes that. But right now I'm focused in on Game 1 and helping my team win. I'm not too worried about what happened toward the end of that game. I trust AV's judgment."

Vigneault said neither St. Louis' career stature nor the fact that he is playing his old team will influence whether he plays with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard come Saturday afternoon.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"I have to do what's best for the group," he said. "It doesn't matter who it is or who we're playing."

St. Louis' image among fans in Tampa took a hit when he forced the trade, which some viewed as abandoning a young team as it neared the playoffs. His absence does not appear to have hurt this season, though; Tampa Bay led the league in scoring.

"I have a lot of respect for the organization over there," he said. "They treated me really well. But this is not the time to reflect on that. It's just time to go play some conference final playoff hockey."