And so here they are.

Eighteen years ago, they were college freshmen, playing hockey in northern Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain, an undersized dynamo from Laval, Quebec and a quirky goaltender from rough, tough Flint, Mich. Two competitors, two underdogs, trying to reach their professional dreams.

It took a while.

One was Martin St. Louis. One was Tim Thomas.

Both were kicked around by the NHL.

Both were given up on more than once.

"But we found a way," St. Louis said. "We both found a way. We definitely had to fight our way into the league and earn our chances, and even then they didn't come at first. I'm proud that we did. I'm proud of Timmy that he did. He battled."

Saturday night, St. Louis and the Lightning face Thomas and the Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

St. Louis wasn't drafted out of college. Neither was Thomas after his senior season. St. Louis was dumped by two teams before he found a home in Tampa. Thomas, with his unorthodox goaltending style, was a journeyman, spending a decade in the minors or in Europe before he finally made the NHL to stay at age 31.

It's hard not to pull for these two.

They're friends, two men at the top of their games - on top of the hockey world, too.

St. Louis, 35 and ever ageless, won the Stanley Cup and Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2004. He is again a Hart finalist after finishing second in the league in scoring and he leads the Lightning with 13 playoff points.

Thomas won the Vezina Trophy for his goaltending two seasons ago. He is the favorite again after leading the NHL with a 2.00 goal against average and a record-setting .938 save percentage.

But now the college teammates, who played and starred four seasons together for the University of Vermont Catamounts, who've battled in NHL regular seasons, will face each other in the playoffs for the first time.

"It definitely will be different," Thomas said this week.

They're similar men; humble, from working-class families. They met their wives while at Vermont. They each have three young children, Marty's three boys and Timmy's girls and a boy. And they both have something no one could ever take away.