Max Pacioretty feels the career-threatening injury he suffered in a collision with a Bell Centre stanchion may have made him a better player.
The Montreal Canadiens winger certainly looks like he has evolved into a first-rate goal-scorer.
Pacioretty’s goal in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins on Wednesday was his fifth in his last four games and his 12th in the last 15. He leads the NHL team with 24 for the season.
“Looking at life and hockey, an experience like that makes me a better person and a better player because I had to overcome all that adversity,” Pacioretty said Thursday.
It was on March 8, 2011, that Pacioretty was carried off the Bell Centre ice on a stretcher after he was hit along the boards by Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Colliding with a stanchion, Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in his neck.
The New Canaan, Conn., native spent two nights in hospital, and his season was over. But he was able to resume training in the summer, and was back to full health to begin this season.
Pacioretty said he did some growing up while interacting with other patients at the hospital, including a boy who had been in a coma. He realized others were far worse off than himself. The same boy was Pacioretty’s guest at the game on Wednesday.
“He was so thankful for everything I’ve done for him but I told him, ‘You’ve done so much more for me,’ ” Pacioretty said. “I’m not just saying that.
“After the game he came in the room. A couple of guys heard the story and said ‘I can’t believe we complain abut the food we get for lunch when people have to deal with something like that.’ ”
The 23-year-old launched a campaign this season to raise funds for equipment to help diagnose serious spinal injuries for a Montreal hospital.
Pacioretty’s life also changed last summer, when he married tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the sister of former NHL forward Maxim Afinogenov.
Pacioretty had a decent start to the current season, but that stalled on Nov. 26, 2011, when he was suspended three games for a blind-side open-ice hit on Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang, who ended up missing 21 games with a concussion.
Pacioretty played tentatively on his return, unsure just how far he could go with his physical game, and the scoring dried up. Through last December, he had one goal in 13 games.
Since finding a balance, he has been on fire.
It had also helped that head coach Randy Cunneyworth found the right linemates in Erik Cole, who, like Pacioretty, is a big, quick-footed winger, and diminutive centre David Desharnais. They are now the team’s top three point-getters.
“We’ve seen inconsistency from him early in the season, but he’s more consistent now,” Cunneyworth said. “And the confidence he has with the puck.
“He has weapons. His speed, his shot, his release. And the chemistry he has with Desharnais and Cole. He has an excellent centreman who finds his stick quite often. Desharnais can bring people to him, take people away from Pacioretty, and can get it to him. His last couple of goals were scored like that.”
Cole has emerged as an on-ice leader since he as signed as a free agent from the Carolina Hurricanes last summer. The 6-foot-2 winger has great speed and is fearless in driving to the net.
That has also helped 6-foot-2 Pacioretty develop his game.
“We have a similar skill set,” he said. “We’re big and fast and play a similar games.
“It just so happens we have good chemistry as well. On and off the ice, he’s been a great mentor for the whole team but especially for guys like me and Davy that get to play with him every night. He’s been huge in my development this year.”
Cole has 14 points and Desharnais has 15 in the last 15 games.
They hope to continue their hot run as the Canadiens visit the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday, before returning home to face the New Jersey Devils in a rare Sunday night game in Montreal.
A handful of players, including Cole, opted to rest after a physically punishing game against Boston. Only 15 players practised on Thursday.