It is accepted as an article of faith within the Montreal Canadiens dressing room that Andrei Markov, when healthy, is the team’s best player.
In the injured Russian defenceman’s absence, the consensus in the room typically settles on goaltender Carey Price – but in the fraught opening few weeks of the 2011-12 NHL season, the best Hab has been none other than winger Max Pacioretty.
If there were concerns the 22-year-old might never be the same after his disastrous encounter with Boston Bruins blueliner Zdeno Chara last February, they can now be put aside.
“He looks as good as I’ve ever seen him,” said teammate David Desharnais, who was Pacioretty’s centre during his breakout AHL campaign last season, the two were reunited this week and put on a line with Andrei Kostitsyn.
Though head coach Jacques Martin juggled his line combinations in the Habs’ listless loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last Thursday – they’ve lost four games in a row and panic is mounting in Montreal – he appears to be fond of the duo formed by a diminutive playmaker (Desharnais) and a hulking power forward (Pacioretty).
“Max is a stronger player this year, it’s maybe given him more ability to win physical battles,” Martin said this week, when asked about Pacioretty’s progress.
That ability will doubtless be put under severe strain by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who provide the opposition Saturday– another Habs home loss would doubtless result in ever louder calls for Martin’s ouster.
The collision with the Bell Centre stanchion, courtesy of Chara, was indeed a life-altering event for Pacioretty, but not merely in a bad way. As part of his rehabilitation for a concussion and a broken vertebra, Pacioretty embarked on a ferocious summer workout regimen – he shares a trainer with Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis – and has added considerable muscle to his already brawny frame.
“I worked a lot on getting stronger, Marty’s 36 and he gets better and stronger every year, so there’s no excuse for me not to,” Pacioretty, who has a team-leading five points in his last five games, said in a recent interview.
In addition to maturing physically, Pacioretty has matured emotionally, both in his approach to hockey and his off-ice life (he got married this summer to tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the younger sister of former NHL player Maxim Afinogenov).
Pacioretty left the University of Michigan after one season to turn pro, but had a difficult time establishing himself as an NHL player in his first two campaigns.
“I went down [to the minors]the wrong way twice and the right way once,” he said. “It’s hard when you’re sent to the minors, you can say all the right things about wanting to work on your game, but I realized that I didn’t follow through on it the first two times.
“The difference is so small between a good attitude and a bad attitude.”
While in the AHL, Pacioretty worked on his shot and technique along the boards, and, more than anything, built his confidence.
The results were striking before his injury, and if anything he has improved since his return.
Earlier this week, Pacioretty observed that he, Desharnais and Kostitsyn have been getting favourable matchups with opposing defensive pairings, but that changed in Pittsburgh, where Dan Bylsma made sure to have one of his shutdown unit of Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek on against them.
Pacioretty relishes the challenge, and said the heavy going against bruising defenders may benefit him even more.
“I just want to try and be the hardest-working guy on the ice,” he said. “I’m at my best when it’s more physical out there, I don’t mind banging with guys, it makes you focus more when you know a [Dion]Phaneuf is out there looking for you.”
And on Saturday, he should be very focused indeed.