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Leonard: Rangers can count on effort from Martin St. Louis

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NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpiHoward Simmons/New York Daily News

Veteran forward Martin St. Louis always plays – and practices – will incredbile effort, something the Rangers have been able to count on since last season’s trade to acquire him.

It might seem Martin St. Louis already got what he came for with last year’s trade to the Rangers.

He had the opportunity to be teammates one more time with his best friend, Brad Richards. He got to make another run at the Stanley Cup — which he and Richards won in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning — as part of an Original Six franchise.

He received more support from his new teammates and staff members than anyone could have imagined following the death of his mother on May 8, 2014. And his first-period goal in Game 6 at the Garden three days later, on Mother’s Day, was just about as emotional and surreal of a moment as sports can provide.

On Tuesday afternoon, though, at the Rangers’ training facility, there was St. Louis on the ice for a full half-hour after practice ended, with his 40th birthday around the corner on June 18, the anniversary of his mother’s death drawing near and nothing to deter the veteran forward from putting in extra work.

He does so because he knows no other way. He does so because there is another reason St. Louis wanted for so long to play in Manhattan.

“You come here, and you know how this team historically always is in the mix,” St. Louis said Tuesday. “For me, I’m trying to take it one step further this year.”

He wants one more Cup.

He also wants to play past this season, and to do so with the Rangers, as he told the Daily News earlier this season. But those offseason issues are on the back burner. In the moment — where the detail-oriented St. Louis insists on residing at all times — he is hoping to become more a part of the Rangers’ offense in their second-round series against the Washington Capitals, which opens Thursday night at the Garden.

“I had a tougher time last series generating offense,” St. Louis said.

He may not have a choice against the Caps.

Mats Zuccarello’s indefinite absence due to a likely concussion has thrust St. Louis into a top-line role on the right wing of center Derick Brassard, opposite left wing Rick Nash. Since returning from his late-spring MCL sprain, St. Louis had developed strong chemistry with Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes on a line Alain Vigneault admittedly “liked,” but the coach rationalized St. Louis’ move up in Game 5 against Pittsburgh perfectly.

“He’s probably the most suited, as far as offensively gifted, to play with both Brass and Rick Nash,” said Vigneault, who played St. Louis more than 24 minutes in the clinching win over Pittsburgh in Game 5. “He has played with them prior to, during the season. He’s very demanding of himself, and that’s what I want. This time of the year, you want players that want to do more, and you need that to win hockey games.”

This season began with St. Louis showing the will to do a little too much, playing center and taking faceoffs in the absence of the injured Derek Stepan, a short-lived and failed experiment that won’t be repeated. But his teammates feel the spirit of his good intentions, as captain Ryan McDonagh noted on Tuesday when discussing St. Louis’ influence in his first full season as a Ranger.

“I think his work ethic is a big attribute for him,” McDonagh said. “At his age, you see him staying out late at practice, going out early. Young guys see that. Middle-aged guys like myself see that. It spreads throughout the room and you feed off that. It makes you want to be 100% certain that you put the work in and prepare as hard as you can for the game.”

St. Louis, along with Nash and J.T. Miller, was one of the players who came back to camp last fall and wowed Vigneault with his conditioning. Now, he is pushing himself harder because he honestly doesn’t think he’s been good enough with just one assist so far — on Hayes’ game-winning goal in Pittsburgh in Game 4.

“For me, the ice is just a comfortable place to be,” St. Louis said of his famously long skates. “If things don’t go your way, you’ve got to work at it. That’s the way I feel. It’s a fine line sometimes to do too much, but I’m just trying to get my game where I know it can be. It hasn’t been there consistently. I’m trying to get it there.

“I’m hoping to have more of an impact, I guess, on this series than I did on the first round,” he added. “Everybody wants to help the team. I feel I can play better, and I’m hoping my best hockey’s in front of me.”

The best hockey always has the potential to be in front of you — if you never leave the ice.

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