LOS ANGELES -- Though they've rarely trailed in their march to within one victory of their first Stanley Cup title, the Los Angeles Kings notched their greatest comeback of the postseason Monday night.
Simon Gagne played his first game for the Kings since Dec. 26, the day he suffered the latest concussion in his 12-year-career. His contributions were minimal in the 4-0 victory in Game 3 against the New Jersey Devils, but considerably meaningful.
“I worked hard to get back and play,” he said after the game. “I was not sure if I was going to play and just get back on the ice.”
Gagne is believed to have suffered three concussions in a five-month span as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2007-08 season. While playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, he missed parts of the playoffs because of another head injury.
On each occasion, he rushed himself back into the lineup. After he was injured the day after Christmas on a seemingly mild collision against the Phoenix Coyotes, he decided it was time to step back and let his brain completely heal.
“I was maybe 95 percent two months ago, but it was not good enough for me and the doctor and the team,” he said. “Maybe in the past, 95 percent, I was going to go back and play, and you never know what’s going to happen after that.”
Gagne didn’t begin practicing with the team until late May, and even then coach Darryl Sutter downplayed any chance of Gagne returning. Then after Game 2's victory Saturday night in New Jersey, Sutter tapped him on the shoulder and told him to get ready.
“After that, I didn’t talk to him until [Monday] morning,” Gagne said. “This morning, he said, 'Are you good to go?' And I said, 'Yeah, sure.' "
Gagne said he spent a restless night at the team hotel in downtown L.A.
“I was nervous [Sunday] night, almost like a young guy playing his first game, and had a hard time sleeping,” he said.
Even then, Sutter wanted to see how Gagne reacted after the pregame skate before officially inserting him in the lineup in place of Brad Richardson.
Gagne, who averaged a tick less than 18 minutes in a top-line roll the first 34 games this season, played just 6 minutes, 39 seconds on the fourth line with Colin Fraser and Jordan Nolan. As a former two-time 40-goal scorer, it was an unfamiliar role for the Quebec native, but he settled in well. He finished with three shots on goal, tying for the team lead.
“Until you get there, you never know,” he said. “It’s the speed of the game you don’t have in practice, and it’s pretty high-level speed out there, but after a couple shifts I felt pretty good.”
Fraser, not used to having such a skilled player on his left wing, was impressed with how Gagne coalesced with the energy line.
“He got the jitters out early and we started to roll after the first period and played well together,” Fraser said. “Everyone wants to play 25 minutes, but in reality it can’t happen, and I think he did a good job filling in.”
Nolan, a rookie who was called up from the minors in February, was equally impressed with Gagne’s play.
“He’s obviously an elite player in this league when he’s on top of his game, but after a few shifts he was back in the swing of things,” he said. “We’ll do some video [Tuesday] and talk about things as a line and we’ll be good.”
Now that he has appeared in a playoff game, Gagne is guaranteed to have his name inscribed on the Cup should the Kings win one more game. He scored nine goals in Philadelphia’s run to the Stanley Cup finals two years ago, but came up two wins short.
“You’re in the Stanley Cup final and I had a chance to be there before,” Gagne said. “I know it’s tough to get there, and having a chance to get back at it, I’m really thankful for that.”