TORONTO – Simon Gagne is no longer a forgotten man with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The team managed to keep his return from a lingering neck injury quiet until the puck was dropped on Tuesday night, and the veteran winger made a big statement once the news was out. Gagne provided the screen when Martin St. Louis tied the game with 8.7 seconds to play before scoring the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The goal and assist were the first for Gagne since joining the Lightning from Philadelphia in a trade over the summer. He had missed the previous 18 games with a persistent pain in his neck that caused some blurred vision.
“We kind of kept (the return) secret this morning just in case,” said Gagne. “I was nervous. I didn’t sleep a lot last night, even this afternoon I was looking for at least a good two hours for a nap, but I could not sleep. It’s hard when you don’t play for a month and you’re coming back in Toronto. You know it’s going to be a tough game.
“I’m glad this one’s over and I’m glad we won the game.”
They couldn’t have done it without him.
First-year Lightning coach Guy Boucher has been widely praised for his attention to detail. He cracked a big grin when asked about keeping Gagne’s return to the lineup under wraps.
“Anything we can do to make sure that the players are able to focus on what they’ve got to do,” said Boucher. “Especially in a situation like this where it’s big for him to come back and wonder how it’s going to go. I think you keep it down to the smallest expression coming into today (so he can) just think of his game. I think it was really important.
“(It’s) pressure off him … and I think it worked out pretty good.”
The Lightning have received a lot of attention during the first two months of the NHL season, but it was seldom directed towards Gagne, a former 40-goal scorer and two-time Canadian Olympian who has battled a number of injuries.
Even though the team was able to get by with big contributions from St. Louis and league goal-leader Steven Stamkos, Gagne’s presence was missed.
“It’s been really hard,” said St. Louis. “He’s a battler, he’s a guy that wants to be out there and help his team win. It’s not only been tough for him, it’s been tough for us to not have him. You know what he can bring.
“We’re happy to have him back.”
The overtime winner came on a 2-on-1 rush with Brett Clark. Gagne elected to shoot rather than pass and beat Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson high just 1:15 into overtime. That finished off a comeback that saw St. Louis tie the game with a pair of third-period goals.
Ryan Malone also scored for the Lightning (14-8-3).
Nikolai Kulemin, with two, and Kris Versteeg replied for Toronto (8-11-4).
The Maple Leafs were left smarting over a Luke Schenn goal late in the first period that was waived off because Clarke MacArthur was deemed to have interfered with goalie Dan Ellis. Replays showed MacArthur getting nudged into the creased by Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman.
“That should have been a goal,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “I think when the referee reviews it himself and he sees it, (he’ll agree). … He told me (MacArthur) was in the crease the whole time and he wasn’t. He was pushed into the crease by the defenceman as the puck was entering the net.
“I have the advantage of replay so I can be critical of it, but it looked like a good goal from the bench and then when we watched the replay, I’d say it was a good goal. You can’t argue that.”
That doesn’t change the fact the Leafs weren’t able to hold a two-goal lead with a little over half a period to play. Toronto has now dropped 15 of 19 games since opening the season with four straight victories.
The decision to shift Nazem Kadri to centre on Toronto’s top line with Phil Kessel and MacArthur didn’t yield any results. The unit appeared disjointed at times and Kadri struggled with the move back to centre—winning just four of 20 faceoffs—before being replaced by Bozak late in the game.
The mood was understandably sombre in the team’s dressing room after yet another loss. Down the hallway, the Lightning could be heard hooting and hollering while packing up their gear.
With Gagne seemingly ready to bolster the attack, they have even more reason for optimism.
“I’m so happy for him,” said Boucher. “It’s been tough. He started the year and didn’t get any points for (six) games but it’s because he wasn’t feeling good since the Calgary exhibition game. He didn’t want to say it, he didn’t want to sound like the guy who is injured again.
“Coming back for the first time healthy and making a difference, I’m so happy for him.”