LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Simon Gagne returned to the Los Angeles Kings’ lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday, completing a remarkable comeback from a concussion.
Gagne hadn’t played since Dec. 26, when the veteran left wing’s career was threatened by his latest head injury. He got a large ovation from the sellout crowd at Staples Center when he was announced in the lineup before the Kings attempted to take a 3-0 series lead on the New Jersey Devils.
Gagne is in his first season with the Kings, who signed the seven-time 20-goal scorer as a free agent. He never got to provide the offensive spark Los Angeles craved, but he still has a chance.
The Kings repeatedly downplayed any notion the 32-year-old Gagne could play in the post-season, but he was cleared for full contact last month. He went through his first full practice with his teammates on May 25, and has been travelling with the team in hopes of helping.
“At this point of my career, you never know, this might be my last chance to taste something like that,” Gagne said last Saturday in Newark, N.J. “Playing or not playing, a lot of things happened in my career that I’m glad that I am here and in that position right now.”
Even Gagne wasn’t certain he should be put back in the Kings’ lineup, given the chemistry they’ve developed during the post-season. Los Angeles won 14 of its first 16 post-season games, including the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals in New Jersey.
But Gagne’s scoring ability could be a boon to the Kings’ power play, which has been sub-par during Los Angeles’ otherwise stellar post-season run. The Kings entered Game 3 at 6 for 77 on the power play in the playoffs, scoring three of those goals during two-man advantages.
Gagne, who is playing in the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in three years, took Brad Richardson’s spot in the lineup. The fourth-line forward appeared to struggle at times in the first two games of the series, and Gagne’s veteran savvy could be useful alongside the youngsters on the Kings’ depth lines.
For the second straight season, a well-liked veteran forward returned to a Stanley Cup contender’s lineup during the finals. Vancouver centre Manny Malhotra came back from nearly a three-month absence with a career-threatening eye injury for Game 2 of the finals against Boston last June.
Gagne spent his first 10 NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, contributing during several lengthy playoff runs and reaching the 2010 Stanley Cup finals against Chicago with current Kings teammates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. He reached the Eastern Conference finals again last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning before signing a two-year deal with Los Angeles.
Gagne scored a career-high 47 goals for the Flyers in 2005-06, getting 41 more the next season. The Kings had only three 20-goal scorers this season, with Anze Kopitar’s 25 leading the lowest-scoring team to make the playoffs.
Gagne hadn’t found his scoring groove in Los Angeles before his injury, but neither had any of his teammates on the NHL’s lowest-scoring team for most of the regular season, a drought that led to coach Terry Murray’s firing in December.
Gagne had just seven goals and 10 assists in his first 34 games for the Kings, falling into a 17-game goal drought at the time of his concussion. After scoring five of his seven goals this season at home and another in the Kings’ visit to New Jersey last October, he was playing in just his third game for new coach Darryl Sutter when he was injured.
Los Angeles solved its scoring woes at roughly the same time it acquired Carter from Columbus near the trade deadline. The Kings’ top six forwards have demonstrated fine chemistry, but it hasn’t translated to the power play in the post-season.
Gagne has been a power-play star for most of his career, getting 79 goals and 108 assists on the man advantage. He also has contributed 23 short-handed points.
Although Gagne stayed in Los Angeles for his rehabilitation instead of returning home to Quebec, the Kings have welcomed Gagne’s return to their dressing room in recent weeks. Forward Justin Williams, a longtime friend from their days together in Philadelphia, said his French had become rusty in Gagne’s absence from his next-door dressing room stall.
“We just want him to get healthy, and all the other stuff is secondary,” Williams said. “We love it when he’s around. It gives a boost to the guys, for sure.”