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Rangers, Lightning boast series of familiar foes

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Martin St. Louis helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004, and now Tampa Bay stands in his way as Rangers meet his old club.Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Martin St. Louis helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2004, and now Tampa Bay stands in his way as Rangers meet his old club.

At least one player believes it is fate that the Rangers and Lightning will have their first playoff matchup in what will be an emotionally charged Eastern Conference final, each team featuring players who used to thrive for their upcoming opponent, including former captains of each squad.

“I’ve always thought that was going to happen,” ex-Ranger Anton Stralman said after Tampa ousted Montreal on Tuesday when asked about the possibility of returning to Madison Square Garden in the playoffs. He proved prescient, as the Rangers and Lightning will begin their series Saturday at the Garden at 1 p.m.

Stralman and Brian Boyle each spent at least three seasons with the Rangers before signing with Tampa last summer. The Rangers have former Lightning players Dan Boyle and Dominic Moore. But there are two names that stand out the most, two players who were so closely identified with the organizations they represented with pride until 14 months ago. That was when Rangers traded heart-and-soul captain Ryan Callahan for Tampa Bay captain Martin St. Louis, who had spent nearly 13 seasons with the Lightning and helped win the team’s only Cup in 2004.

The Rangers were unable to agree on terms of a contract extension with Callahan — who skated Thursday, three days after undergoing an appendectomy, and called himself day-to-day — at last season’s trade deadline, with his agent insistent on his client having a no-trade clause in his deal. So Rangers general manager Glen Sather decided to ship the forward — the face of Tortorella’s black-and-Blueshirts — along with a pair of draft picks for St. Louis, who demanded a trade after his relationship with Tampa GM Steve Yzerman became contentious.

The last straw for St. Louis came when Yzerman left St. Louis off the original Canada roster for last year’s Sochi Olympics before he replaced injured Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos. Yzerman snubbed St. Louis four years earlier in constructing the 2010 Vancouver Olympic roster. St. Louis also said he had wanted to be closer to his family’s home in Connecticut and specifically wanted to join the Rangers.

Now entering his second conference final as a Ranger, St. Louis not only faces an emotional return to Tampa, but is left in a potentially uncomfortable position after he was benched for the second half of the third period in Wednesday’s Game 7 win over Washington before returning for overtime.

Alain Vigneault, who turned 54 on Thursday, sat St. Louis, who doesn’t have a goal this postseason in 12 games, in favor of J.T. Miller. Based on St. Louis walking out of the locker room late Wednesday night as the media made their way in, it is unknown how he handled the benching and how it will affect him. St. Louis has played in Mats Zuccarello’s spot as the top-line right wing since Zuccarello took a puck to the left side of his head in Game 5 of the first round.

These were questions as of Thursday, when the Rangers were off. They will practice Friday to prepare for Tampa Bay, which swept the Rangers during the regular season 3-0 and outscored them 15-7, with the last meeting coming on Dec. 1.

Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop is 8-0 in his regular-season career against the Blueshirts with a 1.49 goals-against average, .946 save percentage and two shutouts. He and counterpart Henrik Lundqvist will obviously be key players, but much of the focus will be on St. Louis and Callahan, and how two teams one step from the Stanley Cup Final have had franchise-altering effects on one another.

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