VANCOUVER — Times of adversity often serve as a test of team character.
When those challenging times hit, eyes tend to drift toward team leaders. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the gaze of many in the Tampa Bay locker room zeroed in on captain Marty St. Louis when All-Star center Steven Stamkos suffered a broken leg on Nov. 11.
In his first year with the “C” on his jersey, St. Louis has proven he is up to the task.
“I think if you look at all the challenges he's had in his past, this has got to be one of his biggest ones,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “To take a young, inexperienced bunch of kids and put us where we are now, especially without somebody (like Stamkos) who has been a staple with him for years, it's a little bit of a testament to what he has brought.''
As St. Louis and the Lightning get set to face former Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella in Vancouver, the Lightning have posted a record of 11-7-4 without Stamkos in the lineup, and they enter tonight with a 7-2-3 record in their past 12 games to sit in second place in the Atlantic Division. On a team that features eight rookies and a total of 12 players with fewer than 100 games of NHL experience, St. Louis knew many were going to look in his direction.
“When things are going bad, you definitely look at the leadership,'' St. Louis said. “You don't want to see them panic, it's almost like a reassuring feeling that they are OK, they are under control. So it's a reassurance that just allows you to dig in and get out of the little hole that you put yourself in. Every team goes through stuff like that, you have to find ways, and that's what we have done.''
St. Louis has proven to be a calming influence in the locker room and on the ice, which has been an important factor with such a young lineup. That has been evident with the 38-year-old playing the past few weeks primarily on a line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, two players who were in the American Hockey League at this time last year.
“Marty has been just kind of a catalyst of everything the last few years here, so you kind of look up to Marty,'' Johnson said. “He's a tremendous leader, he wears the C, and he puts it upon himself to play that much better and to get the team going. You can see that in his play. He's been unbelievable for us, he does the little things right, shows the young guys what to do and it's helped us out a lot.''
Embracing the assignment of playing with a pair of linemates 15 years younger than St. Louis is a testament to the leadership he provides, according to Cooper.
“He goes from playing with Steven Stamkos to two rookies, and did he sit there and gripe about it? No, all he did was go out and perform and make these two guys better,'' Cooper said. “I think there are a lot of players that would sit there and say 'I'm getting put out there with two wet-behind-the-ears American League kids,' but he has risen to the occasion, and we have been better off for that.''
That has shown up in his stats column, as well.
When Stamkos was lost for an indefinite amount of time, many figured St. Louis would suffer on the score sheet not playing with the top goal-scorer in the league. Instead, the 2013 Art Ross Trophy winner has been a point-per-game player with 38 points in 39 games. In 17 games with Stamkos in the lineup. St. Louis had seven goals and 16 points. In the 22 games since Stamkos was injured, St. Louis has 10 goals and 22 points.
“When Stammer went down, we had a two-game moment of exhilarating panic or whatever it was, and we played probably above our means, and then reality sunk in and we all went down, including Marty,'' Cooper said. “He had to reinvent himself, and all he has done is play like a champion the last 10 games. So we all went down, but somebody had to pick us up, and that's what captains do. He picked us up and led us the way ever since.''