Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.
The Montreal Canadiens and Max Pacioretty have been here before, the latter currently injured with a strained hamstring and the Habs now forced to find a way to deal. History suggests, though, it shouldn’t end up being that big of one.
Slated to be out for a period of three weeks, Pacioretty has already been injured this season. He hurt his left wrist in the season opener and missed the following game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Habs won that game handily against the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1. He also missed Game 2 of the Habs’ first-round playoff series against the Ottawa Senators, another game they won 3-1. If you see a trend developing, you’re not alone.
In fact, looking at his six absences from the Habs’ lineup since becoming a regular, you’d have to go back to start of last season, when Pacioretty was out with appendicitis, to find a game the Habs actually lost without him. And during that particular four-game stretch, they went 3-1.
Overall, inclusively dating back to his horrific broken neck suffered at the hands of Boston Bruin Zdeno Chara, the Habs have a winning record of 16-13-3 with Pacioretty injured or suspended. It’s a somewhat surprising stat, seeing as Pacioretty has led the team in scoring in each of the past two seasons.
However, one look back at Thursday night’s 5-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets would reveal that Pacioretty isn’t necessarily the most dangerous weapon the Habs have at their disposal. That would be their depth and offense in general.
Without Pacioretty on Thursday, head coach Michel Therrien was forced to juggle his lines, moving Rene Bourque off the second line and promoting grinder Brandon Prust to play alongside Tomas Plekanec and captain Brian Gionta. Incredibly, the move paid off, to put it lightly, with immediate dividends.
Bourque scored for the first time in what seems like forever (it was actually just five games, dating back, oddly enough, to the Philadelphia win), and Plekanec scored the late game-winning goal and go-ahead goal into the empty net.
Prust assisted on the latter and was infamously on the ice for the game-winner, going so far as distracting a cheating Sergei Bobrovsky as a potential pass option for Plekanec before the goalie was fooled with a low shot to the left side.
The Habs netted five goals for the first time this season without Pacioretty, also not having to rely on their reunited first line of Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller and Brendan Gallagher for a win for the first time either. Pacioretty’s usual linemates, Daniel Briere and David Desharnais, also went pointless, for the record (but that’s nothing new).
This all isn’t to suggest the Habs should lock Pacioretty in a room with a rabid Ryan White every few months and hope for the best. It only means the Habs get by just fine without key players up front for short stretches. That “short” part can’t be emphasized enough. Neither can the "up front" part, considering how the team collapsed last season with Alexei Emelin out (5-10 including the playoffs).
In any case, the last three times Pacioretty was out, he missed a single game each time and the Habs won. As previously mentioned, they were 3-1 when he was out following an appendectomy last season. In December 2011, when he was suspended three games for a hit on Pittsburgh Penguin Kris Letang, the Habs went 1-1-1.
Prior to that, the Habs went 6-7-2 to end the 2010-11 season after he had his neck broken. They then went 3-4 in the first round of the playoffs, losing to the same Boston Bruins, against whom Pacioretty was injured in heartbreaking fashion.
So, while the Habs can realistically anticipate players stepping up by committee in the short term, Therrien and company shouldn’t get carried away. For example, no one should, after Thursday’s game, automatically assume Prust is a diamond in the rough who can be relied on in the clutch given enough ice time.
Surely, if he was given 25-plus minutes each and every game, he would pot a few more goals. After all, he did once score a whole 13 goals one season with the New York Rangers, but so would just about anybody, even White. Prust is not a diamond in the rough as much as his hands are made of granite, used for evil and not good.
If there’s one thing the Habs can count on, though, it's that Pacioretty will not necessarily be out a full three weeks. He has a knack for coming back much earlier than expected. If his previous two single absences weren’t evidence enough, look to his four-game recovery from the appendectomy. Hell, look to the broken neck!
No one expected Pacioretty to play again, let alone come back to start the following season after Chara slammed his head into that Bell Centre stanchion. Some people were caught so off guard by the incident that they even thought Pacioretty was dead immediately afterward.
Now, Pacioretty shouldn’t risk his Wolverine-esque reputation and try and return sooner than he should. A strained hamstring shouldn’t be taken lightly, just as Pacioretty himself shouldn’t be taken for granted. This is a player critical to the Habs’ success this season and moving forward.
However, by the same token, history is on the Habs’ side here. If Pacioretty does end up out for an extended period of time, the team should cross that bridge when it comes to it, just as few teams go around planning for when their superstars get injured. Of course, the Blue Jackets should probably consider it, what with Marian Gaborik due for a good groin pull right about now and all.
The bottom line is, expect the Habs to adjust just fine in the here and now with Pacioretty out. They’re already making do. It’s the few weeks from now that fans should be worried about, but if Pacioretty is still out by then, then there are obviously much bigger things about which to be concerned.