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Leonard: Rangers coach must find balance with Martin

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Martin St. Louis is goal-less through 12 postseason games.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Martin St. Louis is goal-less through 12 postseason games.

Everyone knows Martin St. Louis — Marty, to those who know him — will do whatever it takes.

The 39-year-old career right wing volunteered to play center, for Lord Stanley’s sake, at the beginning of the Rangers’ season when Derek Stepan was sidelined with a broken left fibula. On several nights, St. Louis started in between Anthony Duclair and Rick Nash.

Look it up.

That experiment in the middle was short-lived, though, because it was neither the position that made use of St. Louis’ Hall-of-Fame talents best nor was it the ideal fit for Alain Vigneault’s system.

Seven months later, again due to the injury of a teammate, this time Mats Zuccarello, St. Louis was called upon in the second-round series against Washington to fill a major void. He worked hard on the right wing of Nash and center Derick Brassard, but by the third period of Game 7, his inability to win battles or make plays landed St. Louis in an unfamiliar place — on the bench for the final 10:03 of regulation.

So Vigneault faces an unenviable decision entering Game 1 of these Eastern Conference finals on Saturday afternoon at the Garden, with Zuccarello still not ready and St. Louis goal-less through 12 postseason games: Whether to keep St. Louis on that line, and if not, how to pivot his lineup to maintain balance otherwise.

Understand, this is no ordinary player and this is no ordinary series. For years St. Louis personified greatness. Tampa was St. Louis’ longtime home, too. He helped the Lightning win its lone Stanley Cup in 2004. He had a bad split with the franchise, an emotional time leaving the city.

Vigneault assured he will not allow the unique circumstances to affect his decision. “I’ve got to do what’s best for the group,” the coach said after Friday’s practice in Greenburgh. “It doesn’t matter who it is or who we’re playing.”

St. Louis, who turns 40 on June 18, said: “I trust A.V.’s judgment.”

“I thought I played some good hockey early on in that series,” St. Louis said of the second round. “(I) didn’t get rewarded, but overall I feel good about my game. Of course coaches make decisions at key times in the game for whatever reason. I’ve never liked being left on the bench at certain times, but that’s just reality.

“If I liked it I don’t think I would be here today,” he added. “Nobody likes that, but right now I’m focusing on Game 1 and helping my team win. I’m not too worried about what happened towards the end of that game.”

The truth is, if Vigneault does put J.T. Miller back up with Brassard and Nash as he did in Wednesday night’s third period, St. Louis would be correct not to interpret it as a slight. Earlier in the season he played some of his better hockey alongside Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan, but during the Rangers’ push toward the Presidents’ Trophy, St. Louis settled in best on the trio with Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes that generated Hayes’ Game 4-winning overtime goal in the first round in Pittsburgh. St. Louis, in fact, made that goal happen.

The greatest quality of Vigneault’s Rangers, both mentally and personnel-wise, can be described in one word: balance. It is something St. Louis struggles to find when he puts too much pressure on himself — as he did in practice the day before Game 7 against Washington — but when he’s playing well, he brings a steady, contagious confidence that is irreplaceable.

The question if Vigneault reshuffles his lines is where else St. Louis would fit. Dominic Moore’s bump into the top nine with Hagelin and Hayes has helped the forecheck immensely. Stepan’s line with Kreider and Jesper Fast had 13 points against the Caps. St. Louis is not a fourth-line player. It might seem safer to add an offensive element to the fourth line against Tampa than it would have been against Washington, but don’t let this matchup fool you. The Rangers want to make use of their speed, sure, but they don’t want to turn this into a track meet and give the Lightning turnovers in the neutral zone.

The Rangers prefer to play defensively stingy and complement that with offensive speed. They won the Presidents’ Trophy because while teams such as the Capitals shut opponents down and others such as the Lightning outraced foes, the Blueshirts more consistently did both.

They want — what’s that word again? — balance.

That’s what Vigneault wants. That’s what St. Louis is seeking. And that’s how to navigate the stormy waters of what promises to be a dramatic series — as a team.

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