Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty is evolving as a leader

Max Pacioretty went five-hole in overtime for his second goal of the game and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Dallas Stars.

Max Pacioretty deserves his due.

The Montreal Canadiens captain was under fire from every direction when he started this season with just two goals in his first 14 games. That was after he caught a summer’s worth of flak for leading the team to a 22nd-place finish in last year’s standings. And he was practically eviscerated by Canadiens fans for scoring just three goals and five assists in 14 November games before Sportsnet broke the news at the beginning of December that he had been playing with a broken foot.

So when you consider what Pacioretty’s done over the last five weeks—scoring 13 goals and five assists in 15 games while his team has suffered through a plethora of injuries—you can’t help but call a spade a spade.

This guy has stepped up when his team needed him most, and that has to be a sign of evolution.

The pressure on Pacioretty ramped up when Alex Galchenyuk, who was leading the team in scoring with 23 points in his first 25 games, went down with a knee injury on Dec. 4 in a game against the Los Angeles Kings. A game later, second-line centre David Desharnais went down. And since then winger Andrew Shaw and defencemen Andrei Markov and Greg Pateryn all hit the injured reserve list.

On Wednesday, forward Paul Byron, who has been outstanding with 12 goals and 11 assists through 37 games, was knocked out of Montreal’s 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars after Patrick Sharp caught him with a high hit towards the end of the first period. And early in the third period, Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher’s right hand took the brunt of a 97.5 mph slap shot from teammate Shea Weber and appeared to be seriously injured.

Both players left the game and did not return.

It was a heavy loss for a Canadiens team playing the second half of a back-to-back series. They needed someone to step up, and sure enough the captain answered the bell.

First Pacioretty whipped a wrist shot bar-down on the power play to give the Canadiens a 3-2 lead with 15:47 to play in regulation. And then in overtime—after Stars defenceman Esa Lindell tied the game late in the third period—Pacioretty broke free and beat Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen through the five hole to etch his name in the Canadiens’ record books.

It was his eighth overtime goal with the franchise, passing Saku Koivu and Howie Morenz for first place on the list. And because Pacioretty had scored his seventh overtime goal in Tuesday’s emotional win over Nashville, he became the first player in Canadiens history to score back-to-back regular-season overtime winners.

It provided a dramatic end to a day that started with him being helped off the ice by trainers at Montreal’s morning skate after a Weber wrister struck his right foot and hobbled him.

When he was asked about the incident after Tuesday’s game, he quipped, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just didn’t feel like practicing anymore.”

The criticism—fair or not—has always been that Pacioretty is “soft”.

At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, the expectation that he’ll muscle his way to the net, punish the opposition with checks in the corners and assert himself in loose-puck battles hasn’t always been met.

But he’s also a player who can change a game with one snap of his stick, and he’s one of the only ones in the NHL who can score on a shot from the perimeter almost as easily as he can from right in the middle of the slot.

And the idea that Pacioretty’s not tough enough—which probably should’ve been put to bed after he battled back from a broken neck in 2011 to score 30 or more goals in four of the last five seasons—has all but been dispelled when you consider the pain he’s played through this season and throughout his career.

The criticism that he’s not a good leader, which was bandied about by just about every talking head in and around the Montreal area over the summer, is quickly being dismantled too.

There’s still room to grow in that regard.

Pacioretty hasn’t always dealt with the spotlight as one might expect the captain of the Canadiens to be able to. He struggled with it throughout most of last season, prompting Canadiens coach Michel Therrien to say, “One day he’ll be a good captain.”

And he had some dicey moments with the media throughout his early-season struggles.

But give him his due.

After 38 games, Pacioretty’s 18 goals put him six clear of the next best guy on the Canadiens roster, his 33 points give him four more than second-leading scorer Alexander Radulov, and maybe—just maybe—he’s growing into his role as the club’s appointed leader.

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