BOSTON — As Simon Gagne recovered from muscle and nerve inflammation at the back of his neck, the Lightning left wing said he wrestled with emotions that pulled him in different directions.
Gagne badly wanted to help his teammates, who have battled to overcome not only his absence but that of injured captain Vinny Lecavalier. But Gagne also did not want to risk more injuries by coming back too soon.
It is a debate at the heart of being an elite player in a team sport.
"You need to be honest with yourself and your teammates," Gagne said. "You're the only person who knows yourself."
Gagne knew best as he sat out 18 games to make sure the blurry vision, pressure in his head after strenuous workouts and nerve damage were healed. He returned Tuesday in Toronto and had two points, including the winning goal, in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Maple Leafs.
"In the past, I would have played with those type of symptoms," Gagne said. "Sure, you skate well and do your thing, but you're not the same player."
"It's a tough one," teammate Teddy Purcell said. "We wanted him back, but at the same time, it's his life, and if he comes back and hurts his head or neck again, it could be worse consequences.
"It's a touchy injury. You have to be careful. Lucky for us he waited until he was 100 percent."
Acquired in July from the Flyers, Gagne, 30, knows he is considered a gamble because of his $5.25 million salary and extensive injury history that since 2007, and including this season, has caused him to miss 102 games, 20 more than a full season.
So though Gagne knew something was amiss after a Sept. 25 preseason check into the boards from Calgary's Mark Giordano, he played until a similar check Oct. 21 from the Islanders' Michael Grabner put him on the sideline.
"It's his last year of his contract, and after what's been said about him the last two years, he wants to get rid of that," coach Guy Boucher said of Gagne's reluctance to give in to injury. "There's pride there. You want to play. You want to contribute. You want to have a good reputation."
But Gagne said the explanation is simpler.
"It was hard to know at that time if there was anything wrong," he said of the Giordano hit. "I kind of noticed a little, but I wasn't quite sure, and if you're still able to play, you go play."
Gagne reiterated that doctors told him his injury was from an accumulation of hits. That is why the two-time All-Star, with zero points and minus-8 in six games before sitting out, said he was cautious returning.
"When you're young, all of a sudden you feel 85 percent and you get out there right away," Gagne said. "But you learn as you get older, you need to be 100 percent. … I'm not regretting anything I did in the past, but maybe it cost me a couple games in my career. I definitely feel a lot better now. My legs feel better, I have some speed, my vision is better."
Gagne, who credits a prescription medication for erasing the last of his symptoms, played 12:55 against Toronto. Boucher said he will continue bringing Gagne along slowly.
"Thirteen and a half (minutes), 14, max," with a spot on the second power-play unit, Boucher said of tonight's game with the Bruins at TD Garden.
"We're going to take it easy on him for a little while. He did what he was able to do (against Toronto) because we didn't rush it or put any pressure on him. Everything fell into place because he made sure he was really healthy coming back."
MINOR MOVE: Center Blair Jones was reassigned to AHL Norfolk.