BRANDON — It is rare to see Lightning coach Guy Boucher in the locker room when players are talking to reporters.
But when Boucher saw the cluster around Simon Gagne after Tuesday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum, he couldn't resist.
"I don't know how he feels," Boucher said, leaning into the group, "but he looked great."
It was easy to understand Boucher's enthusiasm.
Gagne, 30, a two-time 40-goal scorer who has missed 11 straight games, practiced for the first time with his teammates since sustaining a neck injury Oct. 21 against the Islanders.
No one knows when the left wing will play, but getting him in the right direction is huge for a team with just 13 goals in a 1-5-1 slide and with a gaping disparity in points between its two top scorers and the rest of the team.
Center Steven Stamkos is tied for the league lead with 28 points. Left wing Marty St. Louis has 19. No other Tampa Bay player has more than nine.
Only three other teams entered Tuesday with two or fewer players with double-digit points. None of those players had more than a three-point margin on their teammates.
"Those guys are obviously great players," wing Ryan Malone said of Stamkos and St. Louis, "and who knows, they might be able to put up two goals every game, but we can't have that burden on those guys. We're all capable of contributing offensively."
"I'm not even looking at that," St. Louis said. "Everybody is putting their hands in the fire. We're all trying. We're getting all the power-play time, me and Stammer, and the power play is going good. But five-on-five we need to be more opportunistic."
Getting back Gagne will help, especially with captain Vinny Lecavalier out at least four weeks after Monday's surgery on the fractured big knuckle of his right index finger. But Gagne did not leave with the team on a three-game trip that begins tonight against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
"We want to make sure everything is 100 percent," he said. "Each day is getting better. I'm on the ice, getting back in shape, so that's a plus, and we know what we're dealing with now."
Gagne reiterated he did not have a concussion and described the injury as inflammation of muscles and nerves at the back of his neck, a diagnosis that took several weeks of testing to reach.
He said doctors told him the injury was from an accumulation of hits. The Islanders' Michael Grabner delivered the final straw, but a violent check into the boards from Flames defenseman Mark Giordano during a Sept. 25 preseason game in Calgary certainly contributed.
"I got hit pretty hard in Calgary, headfirst, glass first," Gagne said. "I wasn't quite feeling the same on the ice."
Even so, Gagne stayed in the game and scored in the 5-4 shootout loss.
"It's early in the season, it might be getting your legs back, so you don't think about it," Gagne said. "But the way they're talking, they believe what I have isn't from one hit. Calgary was one. The one against New York was the one that jammed everything and got those symptoms."
One was jumpy vision when moving his head quickly from side to side, which is why practicing with teammates and a moving puck was so important.
"It's not 100 percent," said Gagne, who had been skating on his own, "but I see big improvements."
"To see him practice that good, that's real encouraging," Boucher said. "He was flying. That's an uplift for the entire team."
A team that needs his scoring punch, though with zero points in six games Gagne is searching for that, too.
But first things first.
"I'm able to skate," Gagne said. "At least now I feel good about myself."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]