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Habs Pacioretty says recovery from fractured vertebra made him a better player

The Canadian Press
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Montreal Canadiens\' Max Pacioretty celebrates with teammates in Pittsburgh, on Jan. 20, 2012. Pacioretty feels the career-threatening injury he suffered in a collision with a Bell Centre stanchion may have made him a better player. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gene J. Puskar Author: The Hockey News

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Habs Pacioretty says recovery from fractured vertebra made him a better player

The Canadian Press
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BROSSARD, Que. - Max Pacioretty feels the career-threatening injury he suffered in a collision with a Bell Centre stanchion may have made him a better player.

The Montreal Canadiens winger certainly looks like he has evolved into a first-rate goal scorer.

Pacioretty's goal in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins was his fifth in his last four games and his 12th in the last 15. He leads the team with 24 for the season.

"Looking at life and hockey, an experience like that makes me a better person and a better player because I had to overcome all that adversity," Pacioretty said Thursday.

It was on March 8, late last season, that Pacioretty was carried off the Bell Centre ice on a stretcher after he was hit along the boards and had his head shoved into a stanchion by Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. The New Canaan, Conn., native suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in his neck.

He spent two nights in hospital, and his season was over. But he was able to resume training in the summer and was back to full health to begin this season.

Pacioretty said he did some growing up while interacting with other patients at the hospital, including a boy who had been in a coma. He realized others were far worse off than himself. The same boy was Pacioretty's guest at the game on Wednesday night.

"He was so thankful for everything I've done for him but I told him 'you've done so much more for me,"' said Pacioretty. "I'm not just saying that.

"After the game he came in the room. A couple of guys heard the story and said 'I can't believe we complain abut the food we get for lunch when people have to deal with something like that."'

The 23-year-old launched a campaign this season to raise funds for equipment to help diagnose serious spinal injuries for a Montreal hospital.

Pacioretty's life also changed last summer when he married tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the sister of former NHL forward Maxim Afinogenov.

Pacioretty had been hot before his neck injury and had a decent start to the current season, but that stalled on Nov. 26 when he was suspended three games for a blindside open ice hit on Pittsburgh defenceman Kris Letang, who ended up missing 21 games with a concussion.

Pacioretty played tentatively on his return, unsure just how far he could go with his physical game, and the scoring dried up. Through December, he had one goal in 13 games.

Since finding a balance, he has been on fire.

It had also helped that coach Randy Cunneyworth found just the right linemates in Erik Cole, who like Pacioretty is a big, quick-footed winger, and diminutive centre David Desharnais. They are now the team's top three point-getters.

"We've seen inconsistency from him early in the season, but he's more consistent now," said Cunneyworth. "And the confidence he has with the puck.

"He has weapons. His speed, his shot, his release. And the chemistry he has with Desharnais and Cole. He has an excellent centreman who finds his stick quite often. Desharnais can bring people to him, take people away from Pacioretty, and can get it to him. His last couple of goals were scored like that."

Cole has emerged as an on-ice leader since he as signed as a free agent from Carolina last summer. The six-foot-two right winger has great speed and is fearless in driving to the net.

That has also helped six-foot-two Pacioretty develop his game.

"We have a similar skill set," he said. "We're big and fast and play a similar games.

"It just so happens we have good chemistry as well. On and off the ice, he's been a great mentor for the whole team but especially for guys like me and Davy that get to play with him every night. He's been huge in my development this year."

Cole has 14 points and Desharnais has 15 in the last 15 games.

They hope to continue their hot run as the Canadiens visit the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday night before returning home to face New Jersey in a rare Sunday night game in Montreal.

A handful of players, including Cole, opted to rest after a physically punishing game against Boston. Only 15 players practised on Thursday.

The game saw the return of winger Ryan White, who played his first game of the season after a long recovery from a sports hernia.

One who has yet to play is defenceman Andrei Markov, who is still recovering from his second major knee operation in two years. Markov skated under the supervision of a trainer before the main practice.

It remains to be seen if Markov will try to play before the end of the season or sit out to try to come back fully healed in 2012-13.

"We'll see. No decision has been made," Markov's agent, Don Meehan, told The Canadian Press.

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Habs Pacioretty says recovery from fractured vertebra made him a better player