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THN.com Playoff Blog: Briere, Gagne return home on a roll in East final

Simon Gagne of Ste-Foy, Que., has six goals and nine points in 10 post-season games this year. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Simon Gagne of Ste-Foy, Que., has six goals and nine points in 10 post-season games this year. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

MONTREAL – You know, you’d think being two wins away from playing in the Stanley Cup would provide all the fire Daniel Briere would need in his belly, but the prospect of playing in Montreal in the playoffs kicks it up a couple of notches for him.

The same goes for Simon Gagne. And given the way the two have played in the first two games of the Eastern Conference final, that is not good news at all for the Montreal Canadiens.

“Well yeah, definitely,” Briere said matter-of-factly when asked whether playing the Canadiens provides him with more motivation. “I mean, I’m playing the team I used to cheer for growing up. My dad used to take me to the Forum a couple of times a year and we all know how I get booed every time I come here and that brings another little extra as well.”

Sidney Crosby’s father complained during the previous round about how hard the rabid Canadiens fans were on his son, but you won’t find Briere complaining about that. After all, he understands how feelings run deeply here and that people still feel jilted he didn’t sign with the Canadiens when he became a free agent three years ago.

“I take it as a compliment,” Briere said, “and it makes it even more special, for me anyway.”

Neither Briere nor Gagne is actually from Montreal. Briere grew up two hours away in Gatineau and Gagne hails from the Quebec City suburb of Ste-Foy. But they are aware of the deity that is bestowed on French Canadian players in their home province.

“In my case, this is my first time to play against the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs,” Gagne said. “Two years ago, we had a chance to play them and I was hurt, so I wasn’t able to get the feeling of what it is to face the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs, especially here in Montreal. So I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be very fun.”

Almost as much fun as the playoff ride has been so far for two players who, for varying reasons, underachieved this season. Gagne’s injury troubles have been well documented, but the fact remains he had just 17 goals and 40 points in 58 games. The playoffs in general, and this series in particular, have been much different. The Flyers are 9-1 when he has played in this year’s playoffs and it was no coincidence that his return to the lineup from injury coincided with the Flyers’ stunning comeback in the second round.

“Yes, he has scored some big goals, but it’s more than that,” Briere said of Gagne. “Just his presence in the lineup changes everything. When he was just about to come back with his foot, I was trying to convince him, ‘Even if you can’t play, just sit on the bench,’ just to have his presence. You add a player like that to your lineup, it changes everything. It makes everybody a lot more dangerous all of a sudden.”

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As far as Briere is concerned, he certainly didn’t have a great season by his standards, but has been one of the most dangerous players in the NHL in the playoffs with nine goals and 18 points in 14 games. Against the Canadiens, he is getting an incredible amount of room to skate and make plays and has used it well. To be sure, people are getting used to seeing the kneeling fist swoop that is synonymous with most of his goal celebrations.

“I think it’s a combination of many things,” Briere said. “Things are falling into place and I feel great right now. Confidence is high and the chemistry with linemates is working. Playing the middle I’m a little bit more involved and I get to touch the puck more.”

Meanwhile, Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, who hasn’t allowed a goal in 165 minutes and 50 seconds of action, celebrated his 29th birthday Wednesday. It has been a circuitous NHL path for the upcoming unrestricted free agent, but Leighton likes where it is heading.

“When I first turned pro, somebody came up to me and said most goalies don’t develop until they’re 27 or 28 years old,” Leighton said. “I was hoping it would be sooner for me. I had my chances in the NHL when I was younger, but here I am today 29, so maybe that was the right age for me. I don’t know.”

Puck Panel: Special teams not so special for Canadiens

PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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