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Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty faces a three game suspension after Saturday's head shot on Pittsburgh Penguins Kristopher Letang. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/CP)
Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty faces a three game suspension after Saturday's head shot on Pittsburgh Penguins Kristopher Letang. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/CP)

Canadiens' Pacioretty gets three-game suspension for head shot Add to ...

He is an unlikely and ironic transgressor given his own nasty head injury last winter, but that doesn’t make Montreal Canadiens’ forward Max Pacioretty any less guilty in the eyes of the NHL.

And now he’ll pay the price for a head shot on Pittsburgh’s Kristopher Letang: a three-game ban.

The strapping winger will sit out a six-day West coast swing for what NHL player safety boss Brendan Shanahan termed “an illegal hit to the head on which the head was recklessly targeted and the principal point of contact”

The suspension, which is the first of Pacioretty’s career, will cost him $26,351.34 in foregone salary - the team declined to comment on the suspension late Monday.

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Fan reaction was swift and vocal on the myriad fan sites devoted to the Habs - the vast majority were outraged by the ban, and referenced the league’s decision not to punish Tampa’s Ryan Malone for hitting an unsuspecting Chris Campoli in the head during pre-season.

Several also pointed to the three-game suspension levied against the New York Rangers’ Andre Deveaux for a deliberate elbow on Florida’s Tomas Fleischmann to argue that the punishment is too harsh.

But in truth, Pacioretty and the Habs aren’t in a great position to complain - the hit appeared to be a clear violation of rule 48, which governs blows to the head.

Though Shanahan found that Letang put himself in a vulnerable position and should have expected contact while skating through the middle of the ice, “what no player should expect is that his head will be picked and made the principal point of contact.”

The league’s view is that the onus was on Pacioretty not to hit Letang’s head, and that “while we agree with Pacioretty’s assertion that Letang’s body position makes it difficult to avoid the head it is still his responsibility to make principal contact through the core of Letang’s body.”

Shanahan, who spoke to Pacioretty by telephone early Monday, issued a videotaped statement that concluded the winger shifted his weight before the hit in a way that made Letang’s head the focal point of the hit.

So the skate is well and truly on the other foot for Pacioretty, who was left with a severe concussion and a neck fracture after Boston’s Zdeno Chara shoved him into a rinkside stanchion last March - Chara wasn’t suspended.

The incident prompted Pacioretty to set up a hospital foundation to study head trauma.

His absence is not good news for a Canadiens squad that has lost three of four games - Pacioretty leads the team with 10 goals and has 19 points in 24 games.

The Habs kick off a pivotal three-game California swing on Wednesday night in Anaheim, and coach Jacques Martin said the short-term answer to replacing Pacioretty will likely be to play defenceman Frederic St-Denis as a forward.

“At the moment the only option we have is to use a defenceman up front, that’s who’s healthy at the moment,” Martin said before the team flew out.

Both Martin and his players were quick to defend Pacioretty.

“I don’t think it was meant (to injure). When you look at the hit, it clearly shows he was trying to get his stick on the ice, it was just the follow-through. At the same time, to me it speaks highly of a player like Letang that probably saw him coming but was determined to get a shot on net,” Martin said.

Added goaltender Carey Price: “It looked like Patch was just trying to make an honest hit, the guy had his head down coming across the ice. I like (Letang), but if you cut across the middle of the ice and are going to shoot the puck you have to expect something’s coming.”

After Saturday’s game, the 22-year-old left winger said “I feel terrible about what happened” and said it was “a tough decision” but that he ultimately went for the hit to try and prevent a goal.

It happened with just over three minutes to play in a 3-3 game, Pacioretty crunched into Letang as the latter carried the puck into the Montreal end and readied to shoot from a spot just above the faceoff circles.

The six-foot-two, 205 pound Connecticut native came in from the smaller Letang’s right, after the game the Penguins defenceman allowed that he had his head down as he tried to get the puck away.

As it was, Pacioretty’s shoulder collided with Letang’s head, sending him spinning to the ice.

No penalty was called on the play.

Though Letang was slow to get up, he later said that it wasn’t because he was feeling woozy, but that he had the wind knocked out of him and was trying to figure out how much damage had been done to his nose, which was badly fractured on the play.

“I was just trying to figure out what happened, I was bleeding so I was taking my time. I did (tests) with the doc, it’s a protocol we have to do,” he said after the game.

As it happened, Letang was cleared to return to the ice for overtime - at which point Pacioretty skated over to apologize.

“It was a very nice gesture on his part,” said Letang, who would go on to score the winning goal.

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