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Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara hits Montreal Canadiens left winger Max Pacioretty into the boards in Montreal, March 8, 2011. (Shaun Best/Reuters/Shaun Best/Reuters)
Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara hits Montreal Canadiens left winger Max Pacioretty into the boards in Montreal, March 8, 2011. (Shaun Best/Reuters/Shaun Best/Reuters)

SEAN GORDON

A year after The Hit, Pacioretty is even better Add to ...

You know you’ve made it in Montreal when madcap hockey-talk maven Ron Fournier tends to burst into song at the mention of your name.

Over the past couple of months the iconoclastic Fournier, a former NHL referee and current king of late-night radio, has punctuated his show by warbling “Pacio-RETT-y, Pacio-RETT-y, Pacio-RETTTTTYYYYY” to what is best described as a spaghetti commercial melody.

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And why not, really?

The very best thing about a very dismal Canadiens season has been the play of a certain Max Pacioretty of New Canaan, Conn.

In a loss to Calgary this week, the 23-year-old power forward scored his 27th and 28th goals of the year – he can rightly expect to be the Montreal Canadiens’ first 30-goal man since Alexei Kovalev in 2008.

That’s all the more amazing considering where he was on a night exactly 12 months ago – sprawled on the ice, unconscious and unmoving after being rammed into a rink-side stanchion by Boston’s Zdeno Chara.

Any one of the 21,000-plus on hand at the Bell Centre that night will tell you they feared the worst; if there were questions as to whether Pacioretty could be the same player, a year later there is an answer: no.

He’s actually quite a bit better.

“Everybody knew from day one that he was a good player,” said teammate Ryan White, who joined the Habs organization the same year as Pacioretty, “but now he’s a man. And he’s almost impossible to play against.”

The long rehabilitation for his broken neck, and a summer spent training with Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis allowed Pacioretty to pack on nearly 20 pounds of muscle – the added strength has allowed him to build on his 2010-11 breakthrough, where he had 12 goals in the 26 games before he was hurt.

“I’ve realized that being the player I want to be requires physical improvements, but most of this game is mental. Being able to overcome that injury and a lot of other adversity ... in the long run is going to make me a better player. It’s a reason for me to be motivated to be better,” he said earlier this week.

The adversity has included being suspended three games for a head hit that concussed Pittsburgh’s Kristopher Letang – after returning to action, Pacioretty scored only one goal in 13 games.

But he has recovered nicely, scoring 17 goals and eight assists in his past 27 games – his 51 points in 64 games have given him a share of the team’s scoring lead with linemate David Desharnais, his centre in the minors. The other member of the line, winger Erik Cole – on whom Pacioretty has patterned his play – is second with 47 points.

For added perspective Pacioretty scored 14 goals in his first two pro seasons, he has 59 and counting in the past two (40 of them in his past 90 games).

The improvement has been palpable not just for those watching the team, but to Pacioretty himself, who says he no longer feels rushed on the ice.

“It all comes down to confidence. When I’m out there with the puck and I have my head up, and I’m not just throwing it away, but making plays ... it’s the easiest way to assess improvement,” he said.

The anniversary of his worst night isn’t a source of a preoccupation for Pacioretty, who isn’t the sort of guy to dwell on negatives.

But the occasion won’t be lost on his teammates, who take to the ice in Edmonton on Thursday.

“It’s inspiring, he almost had it all taken away from him, what he’s been able to accomplish this season – he’s arguably our best forward,” said goaltender Carey Price. “It’s fun to watch.”

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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