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Habs coach: Pacioretty may return for playoffs

Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty is wheeled away on a stretcher after taking a hit by Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara during second period NHL hockey action Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in Montreal. Pacioretty has been diagnosed with a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Paul Chiasson

Max Pacioretty's career looked in doubt as he lay on the Bell Centre ice after a crash into a stanchion, but now the Montreal Canadiens may have him back for the NHL playoffs.

Doctors have told the team Pacioretty will be able to resume training, with contact, in three to five weeks, coach Jacques Martin said Thursday. With three weeks left in the regular season, it raises the possibility that the 22-year-old winger can rejoin the squad for the first or second rounds of the playoffs.

Pacioretty will be at compete rest until March 26, then begin rehab before he can take part in full practices.

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"It's encouraging because at one time there was a question of whether he could come back and play, so this is good news," said Martin. "And it's encouraging to see that he will be able to start his training in a short time and should be able to play in the playoffs."

Pacioretty was expected to be out for the rest of the season when he suffered a severe concussion and a non-displaced fracture of the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck. He was slammed into a stanchion holding up the glass that separates the players benches from a check by Zdeno Chara during a game against Boston on March 8.

Some feared the player might even be dead as lay motionless on the ice for several minutes before he was wheeled off to the hospital. But two days later, he appeared to be in good spirits as he tweeted fans that he had left the hospital.

Pacioretty told teammates during a brief visit before a game Tuesday night that he had no lingering concussion symptoms.

Martin said there was no change in the diagnosis of the injuries, but that it was the first time doctors put a time frame on his recovery.

"It was clear when it was announced it was a fractured vertebra, but not displaced, and after a second observation (Wednesday) when he visited the specialist he was very happy with the progress so far," the coach said. "There was never a prognostic issued about the time of his absence."

The incident caused an uproar when the NHL announced that Chara would not be suspended for the hit.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper was among those calling on the league to crack down on violence and sponsors led by Air Canada threatened to pull their money out of the NHL, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman defended the league's decision.

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson issued a public statement calling for action on hits to the head and offered to lead efforts to draft new rules.

Bettman responded this week at a general managers' meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, with a plan to combat concussions that included a new protocol for handling head injuries at the arenas and plans for new equipment to make rinks safer.

The GMs stopped short of penalizing all hits to the head, but called for stiffer penalties for boarding and charging and longer suspensions for head hits. A new rule was already in place this season to suspend players for blindside hits to the head.

A few dozen fans staged a protest and about 1,000 signed a petition against the non-suspension of Chara outside the Bell Centre this week.

The Canadiens are enduring a raft of injuries.

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Defenceman Hal Gill was expected to miss a game Thursday night against Tampa Bay with the flu, which would leave nine regulars out of action, including five defencemen.

Others injured are rearguards Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Jaroslav Spacek and Brent Sopel, and forwards Pacioretty, Mathieu Darche, Tomas Plekanec and Jeff Halpern.

Call-ups Nigel Dawes and Aaron Palushaj were to see their first action for the NHL club.

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