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Philadelphia Flyers forwards Simon gagne, left, and Danny Briere speak to reporters at a media availability at the Bell Centre Wednesday, May 19, 2010 in Montreal. The Flyers play the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, May 20, 2010 in Game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Philadelphia Flyers forwards Simon gagne, left, and Danny Briere speak to reporters at a media availability at the Bell Centre Wednesday, May 19, 2010 in Montreal. The Flyers play the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, May 20, 2010 in Game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

French connection powers Flyers Add to ...

Of all the wistful what-ifs Montreal Canadiens fans can indulge in regarding the Philadelphia Flyers cadre of French-speaking players, perhaps the least-discussed is the situation of a certain silky scorer from Ste-Foy, Que.

In 1998, the Habs were scouting a high-scoring forward with the Quebec Remparts, who had them drooling with his mix of offence and size.

They should have paid closer attention to the guy feeding him the puck.

At the draft table, the Canadiens picked Eric Chouinard - a hulking, 40-goal scorer - 16th overall, letting his main set-up man, Simon Gagné, slip to 22nd, where he was gratefully snapped up by Philly.

Chouinard, who was later traded to the Flyers, played 13 games and scored one goal for Montreal; Gagné went on to an Olympic gold medal, 745 NHL games and 294 goals (and counting).

"Just his presence in the lineup," Flyers centre Daniel Brière said, "changes everything."

It can fairly be said the longest-serving current Flyers player, Gagné, is the catalyst for Philadelphia's playoff surge.

He has scored six goals in his past six games - all Flyers wins - since he returned from a fractured toe in the fourth game of their second-round series against the Boston Bruins.

Brière, who has also caught fire of late, joked that when Gagné was preparing to return to the lineup, "I was trying to convince him at first, even if you can't play, just to sit on the bench, just to have his presence there."

Montreal fans reserve a special kind of scorn for Brière, who spurned a chance to sign for his boyhood heroes as a free agent - he says he feeds on the boos.

But the crowd hasn't had a postseason chance to vent its spleen at Gagné, whose career was very nearly derailed by a series of devastating concussions - one of which kept him out of the last playoff meeting between the teams in 2008.

Absent some more routine injuries this year - a nagging groin injury required surgery and kept him out for over a month - but he hasn't required the novel and controversial neck treatment he credits with overcoming his concussion problems.

"All that's behind me," Gagné said, swiveling around to find a piece of wood to touch.

If scoring the overtime winner on his return was a key moment ("That really helped give me confidence") and potting the series winner in the third 0-3 comeback in NHL history was a highlight, now, Gagné gets to fulfill a long-held dream: playing in his first playoff game in Montreal. Not that he was a Habs fan growing up - he was firmly in the Quebec Nordiques camp.

There will also be more horse-trading than usual over the visiting team's ticket allotment - amid increased demand from Gagné, Brière, and injured forward Ian Laperrière (and presumably Franco-Ontarian centre Claude Giroux).

"I grew up two hours from here, I grew up with the Nordiques rivalry … it's like coming back to play at home," Gagné said, hastening to add Philadelphia is now his home. "The atmosphere is going to be special here, you can tell that just from seeing the games on television."

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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