When we thought about this day two months ago, we imagined Max Pacioretty would be all smiles and good vibes as he got set to make his early-season return to the city he spent 10 years playing in.
We figured he’d have gotten off to the type of start that would put him on pace to get back to his 30-goal scoring ways. The type of start that would allow him to quickly place his acrimonious summer split from the Montreal Canadiens in the rear-view mirror and enjoy playing on a Vegas Golden Knights team that would be making a statement of their own off the bat — that last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t some fluke.
And it wouldn’t have shocked us if one of the players Pacioretty was traded for on Sept. 10 — Tomas Tatar — would struggle at first to re-establish himself as the reliable scorer he was over six seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, before a trade at last year’s deadline sent him to Vegas (where he only managed six points in 20 regular-season games and was benched for nine of 19 playoff games).
We thought Tatar could be one of many players falling short of making the grade on a young Canadiens team that was embarking on Year 1 of a reset. One that wasn’t expected to be anywhere near the playoff picture a little more than a month into the season.
Well, reality has put a dent in all of that.
Not that we’re beating ourselves up for not being able to foresee the drastic reversal of fortune that’s taken place for both teams and both players since Pacioretty was sent to the desert for Tatar (and prospect Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick). Even the world’s most renowned psychics would probably not have staked their reputations on a prediction that things would play out as they have so far.
In truth, the sheer shock of it all has entertained us thoroughly.
We do, however, suspect Pacioretty’s not enjoying it quite as much as we are, with things playing out so differently than he initially anticipated.
“I couldn’t think of a better situation to be in, coming off a down year for myself personally,” Pacioretty said when offering his first remarks from Vegas, just months removed from his disappointing 17 goals in 64 games with the Canadiens. “I feel I have the opportunity right now to take out my brain and go play hockey — get back to what I loved doing as a kid.”
If you had told him on that day that he’d be returning to the Bell Centre under the less-than-ideal circumstances — owning a two-goal, zero-assist and minus-4 stat line to show for his efforts through his first 12 games — he might have looked at you as like you were crazy.
This would have shocked Pacioretty, too: The Golden Knights, who were relatively healthy outside of their goal crease and were wire-to-wire Pacific Division leaders last season, have suffered serious injuries already and struggled mightily to scrape together wins out of the gate.
Pacioretty missed four games himself with a suspected concussion after taking a hit to the face from Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Brayden Coburn back on Oct. 26, while linemates Paul Stastny and Erik Haula are both out indefinitely with knee injuries and the team has stumbled out to the NHL’s 24th-best start.
A win in Ottawa Thursday brought them to 7-8-1 while an overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres moved the Canadiens into 9th place overall.
Montreal is 8-5-3 and Tatar has scored six goals, added eight assists and gone plus-3 while serving as the most productive player on a line centred by Phillip Danault and completed by Brendan Gallagher.
We’re not sure where it all goes from here, but it’s probably safest to expect the unexpected.
It’s not like what’s happened with Pacioretty, Tatar and their teams are the only surprises we’ve seen in the first 36 days of the NHL season.
Raise your hand if you had the New York Islanders, in their first post-John Tavares days, leading the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. Raise it again if you had the young Vancouver Canucks at 10-6-1 and leading the Pacific Division without Daniel and Henrik Sedin on one of their top lines for the first time in 17 years. Or if you had six teams that missed the post-season last year locking down spots as of this moment while teams like the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins and deep St. Louis Blues are respectively three and four points out of the picture.
We certainly didn’t see it shaking out that way, just as we didn’t expect a radical culture shift to take hold as quickly as it has for a Canadiens team that spiralled to a 28th-place finish in the standings last season.
And, as far as Vegas is concerned, coach Gerard Gallant and forward Ryan Reaves put things in perspective after the Knights lost on Tuesday to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Last year, we got all the breaks,” said Gallant, moments after Reaves said, “[This year] it seems we’re having bad luck and creating more bad luck, and it’s just snowballing.”
Maybe things will change in a hurry. Maybe Pacioretty will face down all the tough questions about his rocky start over the coming hours and turn the page on it with a stellar performance against his old team later on Saturday. And maybe the Canadiens will fall back down to Earth soon — if they haven’t already begun to after dropping three of their last four games and two in succession for the first time all season.
We’re not making the mistake of striking any of that as a possibility. Just as we’re not discounting the possibility that things remain relatively unchanged for the foreseeable future.
After all, that would be the most unexpected outcome.