Gagne’s departure for Kings a crowning achievement for Bruins

Gagne is a Bruins killer/By S. Bradley

The biggest free-agent decisions on Saturday, the second day of the open market, were Brad Richards picking the New York Rangers and Toronto then settling for Plan B and Tim Connolly.

At varying degrees, both will help their new teams better resemble contenders.

But as far as the Bruins are concerned, the biggest news of the day was Simon Gagne leaving Tampa Bay for Los Angeles and a two-year, $7 million deal.

Yes, Gagne is finally out of the Eastern Conference and the Bruins won’t have to worry about facing him in the postseason unless there’s a Kings-Bruins Stanley Cup Final next June. The last two seasons, he has been a Bruins killer in the playoffs.

In this season’s Eastern Conference Final, Gagne produced three goals and two assists for the Lightning against the Bruins in the seven-game series. His goal in the Lightning’s dramatic rally from 3-0 down in Game 4 proved to be the game-winner in the 5-3 victory.

The previous spring, as painful as it is to recall, Gagne was on fire after he returned from injury for Game 4 of the Bruins-Philadelphia second-round series. Gagne scored the overtime winner to prevent the sweep that night and then scored twice in a Game 5 win and the game-winner in the Flyers’ Game 7 triumph.

Now Gagne and his Bruins-beating ways will be out on the Left Coast, out of harm’s way for the Bruins’ attempt to defend their Cup title.

Richards, who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract to go to the Big Apple, makes the Rangers better but not necessarily a threat to the Bruins’ Eastern Conference supremacy. The Rangers are still young and have some depth issues on their back end, not to mention they’re carrying some enigmatic wingers that either have problems staying healthy or producing consistently.

After they lost out on Richards, the Maple Leafs opted for Connolly, whose health is always a question mark. There are also questions about his ability to perform in the big moments. After signing a two-year, $9.5 million deal, he’s going to be expected to set up Phil Kessel and get the Leafs into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.

When the stakes have been high the last couple seasons, Connolly has struggled. He went goal-less in six games of Buffalo’s first-round series with the Flyers last spring. The previous year he registered just one point in a six-game playoff series with the Bruins. Considering Kessel’s lackluster history against the Bruins, Boston isn’t going to worry too much about getting burned when it rolls out Zdeno Chara and a partner against a Leafs top line featuring Kessel and Connolly in 2011-12.

A lot of the teams in the East are going to show up opposite the Bruins with a different look from a season ago. The best change, however, will be that Gagne won’t be in any of their lineups.

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