Time is ripe for Max Pacioretty to prove his mettle in playoffs

NHL insider John Shannon joins Caroline Cameron to break down the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators as both teams are set to kick off the post season Wednesday night.

BROSSARD, Que. — Call it one more hurdle in a career that’s forced Max Pacioretty to jump over many.

A high stick from teammate Michael McCarron at Tuesday’s practice sent the captain of the Montreal Canadiens tumbling to the ice. Pacioretty came up clutching the area close to his left eye and was escorted to the bench by defenceman Nathan Beaulieu before a member of the team’s training staff helped him to the room.

So it was after he missed the final 25 minutes of practice that the “he’ll be fine” choir started singing a different chorus.

McCarron joined in.

“I hope he’s all right,” he said.

The moment of relief came 30 minutes later when Canadiens coach Claude Julien said the team’s medical staff was “very optimistic” Pacioretty would play in Wednesday’s game, which will kick off Montreal’s first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the New York Rangers.

“We’re confident he’ll be in our lineup,” Julien added.

That’s good news for the Canadiens because even if their hopes of a long run are primarily tied to the strength of goaltender Carey Price’s performance, they likely don’t stand a chance of getting past the Rangers — let alone winning the Cup — without Pacioretty’s steady contribution.

He’s earned the opportunity to be in this position; the opportunity to dismantle the narrative that’s followed him throughout his career, the one which questions his mettle — just as Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur did following the 2014 playoffs.

Considering how Pacioretty dealt with that — and with the ungodly amount of criticism he faced for a failed 2015-16 campaign that saw the Canadiens wash out of the playoff race by early February — there’s more reason to believe he’ll come through on this front than there has ever been before.

Not that his resilience hasn’t been proven in the past.

The way Pacioretty has fought through everything from concussions, to a broken neck, cracked ribs, an emergency appendectomy, a broken tibia and more to produce five 30-goal seasons speaks to his determination.

But his evolution as a player and as a leader this season serves as the best evidence he’s prepared for this challenge.

It would be purely lazy to say the bulk of Pacioretty’s scoring chances and his 35 goals came the same way they always have. Whereas in previous seasons he seemed to rely exclusively on his breakaway speed and his rifle of a wrist shot, his willingness to sacrifice in front of the opposing goaltender clearly became a more prominent feature of his game this season.

“He just has that natural ability and the desire to drive,” said Beaulieu. “It’s been really impressive watching him attack the net the way he has.”

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It’s been equally impressive watching Pacioretty drag his teammates into the fight with him, en route to tying his career-high in points (67).

“I can see him really kinda pushing himself to try and make the difference,” said Julien.

So can Pacioretty’s teammates.

Paul Byron referenced Montreal’s come-from-behind 5-4 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 9 to emphasize how Pacioretty has led by example throughout this season.

The Canadiens had suffered four consecutive losses — the worst of which was a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the 30th-placed Colorado Avalanche. A looming fifth against the 29th-placed Coyotes threatened to push them further into despair.

But Pacioretty faced down that pressure and rose to the occasion, scoring two goals and two assists while recording 10 shots on net.

“He was just on another level,” said Byron. “He put the team on his back, he did everything a leader should do; everything a captain should do.”

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The expectation is that Pacioretty can deliver in likewise fashion this spring.

He must be the driving offensive force on a Montreal team that’s averaged less than 2.5 goals per game since Feb. 14. And his contributions can’t be limited to the offensive zone.

His coach doesn’t believe they will be.

“I’ve also seen a guy who really backchecks hard and puts a lot of back pressure on the puck carrier and that’s because he’s a good skater,” said Julien. “His work ethic has been good at both ends of the ice, he’s been a real good penalty killer for us. We can look at his 30-plus goals, but we can also look at the fact that he’s a pretty good penalty killer as well.

“So I would say he’s proud to be a 200-foot player and he works really hard at it.”

That has to pay dividends at this time of year.

With Tuesday’s scare out of the way, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see if it will.


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