His first season as team captain last year couldn’t have been rougher, with reigning MVP goaltender Carey Price sidelined by injury for 70 games and the Canadiens turning a franchise-best 9-0-0 start to the season into dust en route to posting the league’s 22nd-best record.
A broken left tibia hobbled him before the 2015-16 campaign got underway, but Pacioretty fought his way back to health in time for Montreal’s first regular season game. He fought tooth and nail to score 30 goals — a mark he hit in the team’s final game — but it wasn’t good enough for some.
Criticism is part of the job, and it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say Pacioretty takes it all in stride. He had to deal with more than his fair share of criticism in the aftermath of last season’s debacle, and it hadn’t subsided through the first week of the 2016-17 season.
That’s why Pacioretty’s performance on Tuesday night was a vital step in his evolution as captain of the Canadiens.
After being held to one assist and just three shots on net in the team’s first two games of the season, Pacioretty scored 23 seconds into Montreal’s 4-0 home-opener win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Paciorrety added an assist on an insurance marker from David Desharnais and led the Habs with six shots.
Pacioretty created several quality scoring chances that were shut down by Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and rushed to linemate Alex Galchenyuk’s defence after the centre was pasted into the boards from behind by Pittsburgh’s Eric Fehr in the third period.
When asked about the sky-is-falling reaction to his less-than-stellar games before this one, Pacioretty smiled and said, “People don’t really understand the pressure that comes with being captain of a professional hockey team.”
“They don’t understand what it’s like to deal with the pressure of having to produce every night,” Pacioretty continued. “I could cheat the game and try to get myself breakaways, but I’m focused on playing the right way and leading by example.”
It’s Pacioretty’s leadership that’s been called into question by the fans and analysts on both TV and radio. Tuesday’s game from the captain will go a long way towards silencing some of that, for now.
It was a night that started with a touching pre-game ceremony, as Senator Jacques Demers, the last coach to lead the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory, carried the fabled torch out and passed it to Pacioretty from his wheelchair.
Demers was making his first public appearance at the Bell Centre since suffering a stroke in April. Seeing him with a big smile on his face gave the captain and several others in the building a big boost.
“I really got a bit emotional,” said Pacioretty. “Jacques has always been around and always been so positive and always said the right thing, so it was really hard to hear the news. To see him in the tunnel and to see that he was moved and the reception that he got meant a lot to me.”
And so Pacioretty stormed into the offensive zone on the first shift of the hockey game, stole a dump-in from Fleury and gave Galchenyuk a can’t-miss opportunity he somehow missed.
Seconds later, the puck bounced onto Pacioretty’s stick and he buried it passed Fleury’s blocker to open the scoring.
Pacioretty won a race to a loose puck in the second period, pivoted and threw a blind backhand pass to Desharnais who made it 2-0.
The game was neatly wrapped by two third-period goals from Desharnais and Alexander Radulov who scored his first in a Canadiens uniform.
Al Montoya, who was filling in for an ill Carey Price, made 36 saves to record his first shutout with Montreal.
But the night belonged to Pacioretty. It seemed that he made something happen every time he got on the ice.
“He had a really, really good game,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. “I believe our players fed off Patch’s leadership tonight.
“All game he was involved in the game, he did some great plays and he had a terrific hockey game tonight.”
Pacioretty knows the critics will be ready to pounce on his next misstep, but that’s the storm he’s learning to navigate with each passing day.
“We know in here what he can do, what he can bring,” said Desharnais. “He’s a great captain.”