By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Martin St. Louis has been a goal-scoring inspiration for the New York Rangers since he joined them three months ago but he knows as well as anyone how tough a challenge they face heading into the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Rangers will meet the Los Angeles Kings in a best-of-seven series starting on Wednesday, and their opponents are widely regarded as favorites after ousting the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
It has been a decade since St. Louis won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he is well aware of the difficult and unpredictable road stretching ahead of any team bidding for hockey's Holy Grail.
"It's so hard to get it (the Stanley Cup) and as you move along in your career, you realize even more how hard it is to get to this point," St. Louis, 38, told reporters on Tuesday during media day at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
"I was fortunate to win one before but since then I have realized how hard it is just to get back here.
"So I am really enjoying this ride right now," said the dynamic Canadian right wing, who was acquired by the Rangers from Tampa Bay on March 5 in exchange for captain Ryan Callahan and two draft picks.
A six-time All-Star, St. Louis has been on an emotional roller-coaster of a ride over the past few weeks with his mother, France, having suddenly passed away during the Eastern Conference semi-finals against favorites Pittsburgh.
St. Louis flew home to be with his family but then re-joined the Rangers for a crucial Game Five in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins, leading the best-of-seven series 3-1, needed a win to advance.
However, the Rangers, rallying around their mourning team mate, triumphed 5-1 before returning to New York for Game Six on Mother's Day when St. Louis scored the first goal in a 3-1 win.
He went on to provide the assist for the game-winning goal by Brad Richards in Game Seven as the Rangers booked their place in the conference finals with a 2-1 victory in Pittsburgh.
"My teammates, they have been nothing but so supportive with everything," St. Louis, a former Hart Memorial Trophy winner as the league's most valuable player, said of his experience with the Rangers since the death of his mother.
"The support I got coming to a new team was great but then with the situation with my mom, I got even greater support. I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by such a great group of guys."
The feeling is certainly mutual as St. Louis became an instant team leader in New York and has gone to record a joint team-high six goals and 13 points in the postseason.
"I knew that when we got Marty that he would be a strong leader in his own right," Rangers general manager Glen Sather said on Tuesday. "It certainly worked out well.
"Everyone knows the tragedy he went through with his family. The way this guy responded, what he did for our hockey club, that was a tough thing for him to go through, tough for all of us. That tells you the kind of person he is."
New York's path to the Stanley Cup Finals has not been an easy one as they needed seven games to beat both the Philadelphia Flyers and Penguins before seeing off the Montreal Canadiens in six games to claim the Eastern Conference title.
"I think one of the biggest reason why we kept moving along through series is the depth of our team," said St. Louis. "Every win is like different guys stepping up and you need that to go through in the playoffs.
"We are very happy we have gotten that kind of play from everybody and ... we have tried to push every game but, for the most part, different guys have stepped up at different times and that has been the key."
The Rangers are bidding to win the Stanley Cup for a fifth time, having last lifted the trophy in 1994.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)