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Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty kneels on the ice after taking a hit from Anaheim Ducks' Clayton Stoner


This could be the point at which things get dicey for the Montreal Canadiens.

According to the National Hockey League's chronometer (as reported by RDS's Francois Gagnon), rugged Anaheim Ducks defenceman Clayton Stoner crunched Habs winger Max Pacioretty into the boards 0.4 seconds after the latter had dished the puck five minutes into the third period on Thursday.

That means the hit, from the side as Stoner checked Pacioretty at rib height with his stick, is within the bounds of propriety as far as the league is concerned.

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Pacioretty went into the boards heavily and awkwardly, and needed to be helped off the ice. He appeared to have trouble standing up straight, and was taken to hospital for precautionary reasons.

Montreal coach Michel Therrien was in no mood to explore the subject in detail after the game: "I didn't like what I saw."

Stoner, for his part, said he had no intention of injuring the Habs forward.

Every team has players they can ill afford to lose, Pacioretty is at or very near the top of the list for the Habs.

He's their leading scorer for one thing, and is a dominant possession forward on a team that has trouble holding on to the puck.

What's more, Pacioretty wears an "A" this season, and was the player delegated on Thursday night to bring a huge bouquet of flowers to Hanna Koivu, the wife of the evening's honoree, former Montreal captain Saku Koivu.

One well-connected Habs beat writer tweeted that the gesture hardens his suspicion that Pacioretty has the inside track on inheriting the "C".

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"When we lost Max, it's as if we lost the game as well. That's where you see he's a leader," said Montreal centre David Desharnais, Pacioretty's close friend and erstwhile linemate.

The American's powers of recovery are well-documented – he is known colloquially as Wolverine, after the Marvel Comics superhero – but should he miss any extended time it will represent a big problem.

Like goalie Carey Price and defenceman P.K. Subban – victimized by a pair of soft penalty calls against the Ducks, the first of which preceded the eventual winning goal by a few seconds – Pacioretty isn't replaceable within the organization.

If Pacioretty is out for an extended period (he didn't return after the game, and the team is not revealing any details of his injury beyond the fact it affects his upper body) Therrien will have some decisions to make.

The recent combination of Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher (who looked to be in pain in the third after what appeared suspiciously like a slew-foot) has revealed itself to be a bona fide top line.

Bumping Desharnais down to the third unit has balanced the attack – he would score the Habs' only goal on a power-play from Andrei Markov and Galchenyuk – and the imminent return of injured centre Lars Eller will surely help ease the burden.

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But Eller is no Pacioretty, and it's hard to imagine him slotting into the left side of the top line even if some within the organization see his future as a winger rather than a centre.

Perhaps Therrien will consider moving Galchenyuk back to the wing, allowing him to use one of Desharnais, Eller or Tomas Plekanec on the top unit.

With Dale Weise and Brandon Prust already occupying top-nine roles, it's not as if the club has a ton of high-end offensive options at its disposal.

The simple fact is this: the Habs won't be as good without Pacioretty, and as they pull up to a short holiday break and contemplate a five-game road trip through the Metropolitan division, fingers will be crossed for a quick recovery.

The good news is the Habs were able to hang with the best road team in the NHL, and the current leaders in the overall standings.

For a while it looked as if they might honour Koivu by playing like the putrid early-2000s editions of the Habs that the Finn was unlucky enough to have to carry.

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In the first, Montreal's fourth-line got hemmed in its own end, iced the puck twice and forced Therrien to use his timeout with barely eight minutes expired on the clock.

He didn't do it lightly, but the unit – along with defencemen Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert – had been out there for 2:43.

Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf won the subsequent draw against Manny Malhotra, the NHL's top faceoff artist, clawed the puck back to Hampus Lindholm, who rifled a point shot past Price.

Montreal retorted not long after Pacioretty left the game, but then at 8:33 of the frame Matt Beleskey was able to benefit from a Richard Rakell pass to pop in his 15th of the year.

The puck crossed the line just four seconds after Beleskey's former junior teammate, Subban, emerged from the penalty box.

He had been sent there for interference on a play along the boards that is often ignored as a puck battle, and with time winding down he was whistled on another sequence where his main sin appeared to be being run over from behind by a Ducks player.

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The Habs pulled Price in search of the equalizer, and nearly managed to spring Subban on a breakaway pass as he left the penalty box with 15 seconds to play, but to no avail.

Invited to address the calls afterward, Subban said "I never like to comment on officiating. It's one of those things, I just park it, let everybody else talk about it."

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