Dan Di Sciullo - NHL Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
When the final horn sounded Friday night at Madison Square Garden, every player wearing a New York Rangers sweater had to accept a difficult truth.
The Rangers came up short in their bid to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals for a second straight season, getting blanked 2-0 in Game 7 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a tough loss to swallow for everyone involved, but coming to terms with reality will be extremely difficult for one player in particular.
For Martin St. Louis, this may not only be the end of his season. It could signal the end of a standout career.
St. Louis will turn 40 years old on June 18. A few weeks after that, assuming he doesn't sign a new deal with the Rangers, he will become an unrestricted free agent.
The potential Hall of Famer wasn't ready to talk about his plans beyond the 2014-15 season so soon after a crushing loss, one that came against the team St. Louis was traded from nearly 15 months ago.
"It takes a few days to sink in, that the season is over," said St. Louis. "Time usually heals things. You'll get a chance to reflect. It's not going to feel good for a while."
St. Louis certainly has a lot to reflect on before determining his next move. This time last year, his decision to request a trade out of Tampa Bay seemed like a stroke of genius. The Lightning had already been bounced out of the playoffs via a first-round sweep against Montreal, while St. Louis was leading the charge for the Rangers offense, as they made a run at their first Stanley Cup title since 1994.
But, St. Louis' first full season in New York was an entirely different experience. The two-time NHL scoring champ struggled to his worst regular season in over a decade, posting only 52 points on 21 goals and 31 assists. There was hope St. Louis would recapture the brilliant form he displayed in the 2014 postseason once the playoffs rolled around, but it was not to be. After going pointless for a third straight outing in Game 7, St. Louis ended the 2015 playoffs with just one goal and six assists over 19 games.
Following a rough postseason from a personal standpoint, there's now a distinct possibility that St. Louis will watch his ex-club win it all in 2015. He was a key part of the Lightning's lone championship run in 2004, but every player wants one last chance to experience the thrill of winning a Cup.
Seeing Tampa return to the top of the mountain without him would likely bring about conflicting emotions for St. Louis. He still counts many friends on the Lightning roster, including Tampa superstar forward Steven Stamkos, the man who replaced St. Louis as captain when he was traded to New York in March of 2014 for ex-Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
On one hand, St. Louis would feel a bit of pride to see his protege experience what it's like to win a championship, but on the other it would be difficult to see Stamkos and Co. claim a title without him.
Stamkos and St. Louis didn't communicate with each other over the last few weeks while their teams battled for the Eastern Conference title, but they met in the handshake line for a moment that Stamkos described as "bittersweet."
"Marty is a competitor, he's a great friend of mine, and I'll always respect him. I told him that," Stamkos said after Game 7. "He obviously wished me the best of luck."
Once St. Louis has time to process the loss to the Lightning, he has some big decisions to make. First, of course, is whether or not he wants to play next season. Then he has to figure out if he wants to be back with the Rangers, although New York could make that decision for him if it opts against re- signing the aging winger.
As he approaches 40, it's entirely possible what we saw from St. Louis is a sign he should call it a career. It could be the first step in a steep decline. Then again, maybe he will give it another try in a new setting. A change of scenery could help prove there's a little more left in the tank.
For now, St. Louis has to deal with the emotions of getting so close to another title only to come up short against the franchise that meant so much to him for such a long time.
Knowing the type of competitor St. Louis is, there's no way he wants his career to end this way. But getting old is a harsh reality in sports, and if his body is telling him to hang up the skates then St. Louis may have to face the facts and call it a career.
There would be no shame in calling it a day at this point. For so many years, St. Louis was overlooked because of his size. He went undrafted because a 5- foot-8 guy couldn't possibly make a difference in the NHL. When he did make a splash and won the Hart Trophy, there were still doubters who said he was only a flash in the pan. Of course, he proved those critics wrong by becoming one of the most consistent offensive weapons of his generation.
St. Louis has already proven enough on his long road to acceptance. That being said, it'd be great to see him prove himself one last time.