When former Vermont coach Mike Gilligan thinks about two of his favorite former players, Lightning wing Marty St. Louis and Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, plenty of similarities between the two come to mind. They are cut from the same competitive cloth: battlers who had to overcome the odds and "labor through a lot of organizations that weren't believing in them in the early going," Gilligan said.

It was that drive that helped St. Louis, 35, go from being undrafted to NHL MVP and Stanley Cup winner, and helped Thomas, 37, persevere through several seasons in the minors and in Europe before making it to the NHL at age 28 and turning into arguably the league's top goaltender.

"Both," Gilligan said, "have the hearts of lions."

St. Louis and Thomas have been good friends since starring for the Catamounts from 1993-97, but the stakes for a reunion have never been higher. The two meet in the Eastern Conference final beginning Saturday in Boston.

To Gilligan, the stage is fitting.

"It proves to a lot of young athletes and proves to a lot of guys that don't get a break," Gilligan said. "Both are great role models for fighting their way into things."

The way St. Louis and Thomas played in college, it's surprising to Gilligan they had to wait so long to get a shot in the NHL.

St. Louis was a three-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey's top player. He paired with former Lightning player Eric Perrin for a dynamic one-two punch.

"He was probably one of the top players I've ever seen in college," Gilligan said. "He sees the game like he was sitting in the stands looking down at the ice. He knows what plays to make all the time. You couple that with tremendous heart and work ethic, and it's quite a package.

"Whenever Marty touched the puck, everyone was on their feet because they just knew something was going to happen."

For Gilligan, it was hard keeping St. Louis off the ice. He said no one played more minutes in four years.