NEW YORK - On the day before Vinny Lecavalier began his first playoff series with the Flyers, someone reminded him of an anniversary.
It had been 10 years, Lecavalier was told, since he, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Those three were a sight to see back then. Lecavalier scored nine goals in those playoffs. Richards piled up 26 points in winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. St. Louis won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer and the Hart Trophy as its MVP and added 24 points in 23 postseason games.
The Lightning beat the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals and the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Finals, and St. Louis was about to turn 29 and neither Lecavalier nor Richards was 25 yet, and they were going to win championships together for years and years. You think that way when you're young. They didn't win another playoff series together. The Lightning traded Richards to Dallas in 2008, let Lecavalier sign with the Flyers last year, traded St. Louis to the Rangers in March. The moment had passed. The moment always passes.
"It's funny in hockey. Things can change quickly," Lecavalier said Wednesday after the Flyers' final practice before Game 1 of their first-round series against the Rangers - and Richards and St. Louis. "It was a lockout year, and we came back, and there's like five, six, seven, eight guys not there. It's part of hockey. It's part of the business. You've got to move on."
All these years later, here they are together again, and the Rangers' 4-1 victory Thursday made one thing clear: The Flyers had better start treating Richards and St. Louis as if the two of them are still in the prime of their accomplished careers. Lecavalier was no factor in the game, playing less than eight minutes, relegated to the Flyers' fourth line. But Richards scored the winning goal and had two assists, and St. Louis had two assists himself - all that production coming during a third period that the Rangers dominated from beginning to end.
Yes, those two looked as fresh as they did back in 2004, and it struck such a contrast with their old teammate. Lecavalier did score 20 goals this season, still has that hard, heavy shot. But he doesn't find or create the time and space to release it as often as he once did, and it is telling that Flyers coach Craig Berube was willing to put rookie Jason Akeson on the third line and keep Lecavalier buried on the fourth.
Then Akeson got careless with his stick in the third period, lifting it too high and cutting the face of Rangers forward Carl Hagelin, handing New York a four-minute power play, handing Richards and St. Louis an opportunity to turn back the clock.
St. Louis is still waterbug-quick, boot-scooting around and past defensemen, the same skater and playmaker, Lecavalier said, as when he was 22. Richards resembles a crafty old-timer in a pickup basketball game, the one who can't jump and hardly runs but knows exactly where he has to be to beat you. It is what he did to score his goal Thursday night. He stationed himself in the right circle, and a blocked shot by Rick Nash caromed right to him. He didn't have to move. The puck just found him, and he blasted it past Ray Emery.
On that same power play, Richards found Derek Stepan near the Flyers' net with a marvelous cross-ice pass, the kind of play a less composed, less intelligent player doesn't dare to try, and later in the period he put a seeing-eye shot on Emery just to generate a rebound, which Hagelin flipped home. Based on Thursday, it makes you shake your head to remember that this summer the Rangers considered buying out the rest of the nine-year, $60 million contract they had signed Richards to in 2011.
"He's really good at understanding the situation in the game, taking what's given, making good reads," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "That's when he's at his best - when he sees an open guy and hits him, moves the puck. He's able to execute on another level."
"Richie's not the fastest," Lecavalier said. "He never was. His characteristic is he's a smart player. He makes big plays. We have to be physical on them. We have to be quick on them. They've done it for a long time. Playing against them, we have to make sure we're solid on them."
They weren't in Game 1. They were far from solid against Richards and St. Louis, against goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, against any facet of the Rangers' system or strategy. It sure felt like 2004 all over again for Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis on Thursday night. It sure felt like the moment had passed only for Vinny Lecavalier and the Flyers.