Jean-Gabriel Pageau is not the kind of star whose injury status makes big leaguewide news. He does not rank among the top four Islanders in goals, assists or headlines.
But the Islanders and their avid fans understand and appreciate how important a cog he is, which made Monday’s practice a happy occasion.
Well, at least it was a promising occasion.
The 12-year veteran center participated fully for the first time in nearly a month, looked pretty good doing so and could play against the Sabres on Tuesday.
Pageau practiced though still technically on injured reserve with an upper-body injury, but coach Lane Lambert said afterward that he liked what he saw.
“I thought he looked pretty good,” he said. “We’ll have to evaluate that. We will see how he came through that.”
Pageau, 30, has missed nine games as the Islanders try to keep a wild-card playoff spot while being chased by teams such as Buffalo that have played fewer games.
The Islanders hold the first wild-card spot with 72 points in 65 games. Of the five other teams in the hunt with at least 68 points, only two have played as many as 64 games and three have played only 62.
On Monday, Pageau took fourth-line turns, sharing that role with Otto Koivula, whom Lambert and several players praised for filling in ably in Pageau’s absence.
What makes Pageau so important is his versatility. He has 10 goals and 19 assists and serves on both the penalty kill and power play. He also excels at faceoffs and is the team’s lone righthanded center.
“He’s just so solid,” Anders Lee told Newsday. “In many ways, he can do everything, and not a lot of guys can do that, play in any spot and any situation and we can count on him. So he’s a big-time player.”
Zach Parise said Pageau looked “great” in practice.
“It’s his versatility,” he said. “You go through all the important situations that we have in a game and he’s out there.
“It’s been a big hole for us to fill. Guys have been doing a good job, but again, we look forward to getting him back.”
Matt Martin told Newsday: “It will be massive. Obviously, he plays a shutdown role, the only righthanded centerman we have and one of the best at [faceoffs] to boot. Getting him back would be huge for our depth.
“He’s definitely hard to replace, but I think guys have done a good job kind of doing it by committee . . . We’ve kept our head above water without some big pieces of our team.”
The biggest missing piece, Mathew Barzal, remains out with a lower-body injury. But the schedule will not wait for him.
After hosting the Sabres, the Islanders visit the Penguins on Thursday and host the Capitals on Saturday, two more teams in their standings neighborhood.
“We know how big these are,” Lee said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s fun for our fans to show up and see an important game and give us some great backing in a big game.”
Said Martin: “In some ways, we have pretty good control over where we end up.”
A healthy Pageau would go a long way toward helping them end up there.