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Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty has grown into his leadership role this season, teammates say. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty has grown into his leadership role this season, teammates say. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

Habs’ Pacioretty has been team’s heartbeat in second season as captain Add to ...

He would have been about nine or maybe 10 years old, that part is fuzzy. Anyway, the point is Max Pacioretty would conscript his sister and commandeer one of those little clickers sometimes used to take attendance in cinemas and hockey arenas.

Into the basement they would go, where Pacioretty would fire shot after shot at an old soft-drink can that had been hung up as a target.

A ping got you a click, duly tracked by young Katie Pacioretty.

He reckons he loosed more snapshots in that cellar in New Canaan, Conn. – the ceiling was too low for a full windup – than any hockey player alive or dead.

“I know everybody says that, but I really believe it,” Pacioretty said earlier this season. “Literally all day long, every day.”

An NHL player is necessarily more driven than the average beer-leaguer, but as Pacioretty allowed, “you probably have to be a little bit nuts.”

By that standard, you might call the Montreal Canadiens’ captain, upon whom a great deal depends for the Habs in the coming NHL playoffs, a recovering obsessive.

Speaking of recovery, he is also famed for his recuperative powers, which will once again be put to good use after taking an accidental stick under the visor from teammate Michael McCarron in practice Tuesday.

Though the 28-year-old left the ice clutching his face, coach Claude Julien said the club is “very confident” he will suit up for the playoff opener against the New York Rangers on Wednesday.

Good thing, too. The team’s offence can’t afford the loss of the NHL’s sixth-leading goal scorer.

But in addition to possessing uncommon offensive prowess, Pacioretty is a legendarily self-critical player, who by his own admission had chronic difficulty earlier in his career in leaving his work at the rink; as the father of two young boys, he now has less time for ruminating.

There are still relapses here and there – after a hard-fought loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last month, Pacioretty was incandescent, kicking himself for a couple of missed chances and batting aside any suggestions there were any silver linings in the performance.

Last year, Pacioretty was voted team captain, an honour that brought him to tears, and after a record-breaking start, the Habs’ season promptly crumbled around their new leader’s feet.

If the ‘C’ looked like an anchor – and it did – the burden appears considerably lighter as the Habs look to avenge a 2014 Eastern Conference final defeat at the hands of the Rangers.

A lot of attention will focus on goaltender Carey Price, injured by a sliding Chris Kreider early in that series, and that’s perfectly appropriate; Price is the club’s best player.

But as Julien points out, good goaltending is only helpful insofar as you can score on the other guy, and that’s Pacioretty’s department.

The big left-winger potted 35 goals for the third time in four seasons, only Alex Ovechkin, Joe Pavelski, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane have more goals since 2013 (he’s within five of the latter three).

Teammates say he’s more or less the same guy he’s always been behind closed doors, but no one disputes the idea he has grown into his leadership role this season.

“Everyone gets older, and you start to learn how to cope with things better,” said winger Paul Byron.

All teams have their peaks and troughs in a given season, and when the Habs began to wobble after another strong start, their captain stepped to the fore.

Phillip Danault, who has centred Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov for much of the year, pointed to a Jan. 31 hat trick against Buffalo and to the left-winger’s performance in a Feb. 9 game in Arizona, where he scored twice and added two assists in a come-from-behind win.

“For me, he carried the team,” said Danault.

A few days after the near-debacle in the desert, coach Michel Therrien would be fired, Julien would be hired, and the Habs would take flight to the league’s second-best record since the middle of February (they also swept the regular-season series with the Rangers, which is neither here nor there).

The Habs have also been among the top two or three defensive teams in hockey over the span.

Though the Rangers are no pushover – loaded as they are with offensive balance and backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist in goal – the underlying stats suggest they and the Habs have been trending in opposite directions over the past 25 games, particularly at five-on-five.

Beating the Blueshirts would hold particular significance for Pacioretty, who grew up idolizing them.

It could also provide a signature playoff moment for a captain who has yet to accrue any.

No one will be happier for that to happen than his teammates.

“I don’t think people necessarily realize what he goes through every day. He’s the focal point in the media, he’s thinking about every single person on this team and how to help them do their job better,” said veteran winger Torrey Mitchell. “He’s the heartbeat of the team. He’s the face of it, too.”

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