Pacioretty putting ‘The Hit’ behind him

Back in September, Max Pacioretty said he wanted to be known for his play, not ‘The Hit.’

Mission accomplished.

Pacioretty has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Canadiens. His 30 goals and 56 points lead the team, with several weeks to add before season’s end.

"Thirty goals is exciting," he told reporters after reaching the mark against the Oilers last Thursday. "But it’s a team sport and I have to give a lot of credit to my linemates and my teammates. They really helped me out a lot this year."

It’s been a year that seemed almost impossible to fathom.

It was on March 8, 2011, that Pacioretty was driven into a Bell Centre stanchion by Boston’s Zdeno Chara. The image of the unconscious winger flattened on the ice was beyond scary. The hit would leave the New Canaan, Conn., native with a broken vertebra and severe concussion.

"That’s a heck of a thing to come back from," Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth said following the game in Edmonton. "The dedication and the work he has had to do is something. He came back bigger and stronger."

He had been cleared to play in the second round of the 2011 playoffs had the Canadiens eliminated the Bruins in their quarterfinal series. But even then there was no way to know what the team would get upon his return.

"We all knew his potential as a player but you never know coming off injury how they’re going to respond or how they’re going to perform, and he’s exceeded all expectations," defenseman Josh Gorges told TSN.

Added Canadiens goaltender Carey Price: "He went through a lot of adversity and I think he became a stronger person because of it. Almost having it all taken away from you and then having a chance at it again, I think he’s showing a lot of hunger."

In tallying his 30th, Pacioretty became the first American player in Canadiens history to reach the mark. Captain Brian Gionta came close last season with 29.

"This year I set a lot of goals for myself," he told reporters prior to last Thursday’s morning skate. "I wanted to get better every day and work hard in practice. My goal is to develop as a player, and I’m sticking to that."

His own motivation and dedication have been paramount in his development. He’s also benefited from the skill of center David Desharnais — having a breakout year of his own — and the experience of linemate Erik Cole. Cole, of course, suffered two broken vertebrae on a hit from behind by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik back on March 4, 2006, when Cole was a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.

"Once you overcome the physical side of things you still have to deal with the psychological part of it — being able to commit yourself to playing the same way and playing without the fear or the same kind of reckless demeanor and straightforwardness that he’s shown this year," Cole told reporters.

Pacioretty had shown promise when called up in December 2010 and leading up to the hit. But the incident — and subsequent events — has become a defining one for the 23-year-old.

"I’ve grown up a lot since my injury. I kind of have a new mindset on life and outlook on hockey as well," Pacioretty told TSN. "I think that’s the reason for my success and that’s the reason for me stepping up as a human being and being a better person every day."