PHILADELPHIA – Simon Gagne knew it was coming, but that didn’t stop the tears.
The former Philadelphia star had an emotional return to the city where he began his career, helping the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Flyers 3-2 on Thursday night.
“The first 20 minutes were really hard,” Gagne said. “I was tearing up.”
Steven Stamkos, Dominic Moore and Paval Kubina scored to lead Tampa Bay to a 3-0 start and hand the Flyers their first loss. The Lightning were coming off 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal on Wednesday night.
Nikolay Zherdev and Danny Briere scored for Philadelphia.
Gagne, a hero last season in the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup finals, spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Philadelphia before being dealt to the Lightning during the summer to clear salary cap space.
Fans cheered within the first minute of the game, when Gagne stepped on the ice for his first shift. The popular left winger received a louder ovation with 13:40 left in the first, when the Flyers showed a video montage of highlights during a timeout. Gagne waved to the crowd from the bench, then did a half-circle on the ice while joining his new teammates for the faceoff.
“I was up for the faceoff, anyway, so I thought it was a good time to do it,” Gagne said. “I wanted to cry. I had to stop watching (the video) a couple of times. A lot of emotion. Everything started here. They showed my first goal and all the big goals. It’s still hard to think about. They’re always going to be in my heart. That’s something I’ll always remember.”
Stamkos beat Flyers goalie Brian Boucher’s stick side nearly five minutes into the game, on a feed from Steve Downie after the puck bounced off the board. It was Stamkos’ fourth goal in three games.
Zherdev, one of the players signed with the money saved from shedding Gagne’s US$5.25 million salary, tied it a little more than two minutes later off an assist from James van Riemsdyk.
Tampa Bay made it 2-1 in the second period when Moore backhanded a rebound through Boucher. Kubina scored early in the third on what turned out to be the deciding goal. His shot from the point passed through Dan Carcillo and Kimmo Timonen untouched, and slipped between Boucher’s pads.
“I thought I picked it up,” said Boucher, who stopped 21 shots. “It hit my pads pretty hard and I was shocked to see that it went in. I thought I had good positioning, I felt my butterfly was good enough, it just happened to squeak through.”
Philadelphia pulled within a goal midway through the period, when Briere wristed a shot past Dan Ellis, who had 24 saves for Tampa Bay.
Gagne has had three emotional games with Tampa. On Oct. 9, he played his first game for his new team, then followed that up by playing in his home province against the Canadiens.
And now Philadelphia.
“I raise my hat to him,” Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. “I might have been crying when I saw that video.”
“You don’t really realize how important you come back and get a reaction like that,” he said. “If you play for the Flyers your whole career, you might not have a chance to have an ovation like that. You realize you were a big part of their life for 10 years, and that’s really touching. They’re always going to be in my heart. It’s always going to be a special place for me.”
NOTES: Gagne, a first-round pick in the 1998 draft, played 664 games for the Flyers. He scored 259 goals, including two 40-goal seasons. He hasn’t recorded a point in his first three games with Tampa Bay. … Zherdev’s goal tonight was his 100th career NHL goal.