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Max Pacioretty nearing return from injury with Montreal visit looming

TORONTO — Max Pacioretty was never bothered by life in the spotlight. Some of the questions he faced daily as captain of the Montreal Canadiens — especially when things weren't going well — were another story.

TORONTO — Max Pacioretty was never bothered by life in the spotlight.

Some of the questions he faced daily as captain of the Montreal Canadiens — especially when things weren't going well — were another story.

Traded to the Vegas Golden Knights before the start of training camp, Pacioretty's routine no longer includes a throng of cameras, microphones and notepads waiting for him at his locker. 

There might be a couple after a game or practice, or perhaps none at all.

"Obviously the media is much different," Pacioretty said following Monday's on-ice session in Toronto. "Expectations are there in every organization.

"But in a Canadian market everybody knows you have to answer the questions about those expectations everyday."

Set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and with his future in Montreal very much in doubt, Pacioretty signed a four-year contract extension with Vegas worth US$28 million through 2022-2023 the same day he was acquired for winger Tomas Tatar, forward prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick.

"It's a bit more realistic," Pacioretty added of his relationship with reporters in the Nevada desert. "You don't sit up front everyday and answer questions about how bad you are."

Voted captain of the Habs by teammates in 2015, Pacioretty has been out of the Knights' lineup with an upper-body injury since getting hurt Oct. 26. The 29-year-old winger took part in his first full-contact practice Monday and could face the Maple Leafs on Tuesday.

Vegas, which made it all the way to last season's Stanley Cup final in a stunning expansion campaign, then travels to the nation's capital Thursday to meet the Ottawa Senators before Pacioretty's looming return to Montreal on Saturday.

Pacioretty scored 226 goals and added 222 assists in 626 games to go along with 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 38 playoff contests during his 10 seasons with the Canadiens.

Asked how many ticket requests he's received for this weekend, Pacioretty joked his phone has been turned off "so I don't have to max out my credit card."

"People mentioned it was probably good to get it out of the way early," he said of playing at the Bell Centre as a visitor. "It'll be fun to go back. Hopefully I play."

Pacioretty had two goals in nine games plus two shifts before being sidelined for a team that also lost Paul Stastny — who signed a three-year, $19.5-million contract in free agency on July 1 — to a lower-body injury Oct. 8 that could keep the centre out until December.

That's on top of the Knights still being without defenceman Nate Schmidt as he continues to serve is 20-game suspension for violating the NHL's performance-enhancing drug policy.

"We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole to start the year," Pacioretty said. "If you don't pick up points and you're not playing, you just feel like you've got to get back out there and help your team."

Four points out of a playoff spot, but also just six back of the Pacific Division lead, the Knights (6-7-1) entered Monday second-last in the NHL with an average of 2.29 goals scored per game, down significantly from last season's mark of 3.27 when they finished fifth in the standings with 109 points.

Vegas has similar goals-against numbers compared to last year (2.74 in 2017-18 and 2.71 this season), while the team ranks fifth in shots for (33.5), second in shots against (25.2) and owns the league's third-best even-strength shot differential at 57.70 per cent.

But the Knights also have the NHL's worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage at 5.6, while their save percentage at even strength is .898 (28th overall) for a last-place shooting percentage plus save percentage, also known as PDO, of 954.

The league's 28th-ranked power play also hasn't helped.

"We've played better than our record," Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant said. "Everything seems to be a little tougher than it was last year. Last year ... the puck luck was going our way.

"We gotta push through it."

Pacioretty, who was initially on a line with Stastny, is looking forward to building more chemistry with Alex Tuch and Erik Haula whenever he returns to action.

"I was really starting to feel my game," he said. "Some of the best I've played in a long time."

Pacioretty took the high road when asked his opinion of Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin with a brief "no hard feelings," adding that he's impressed with his old team's start following a miserable showing last season.

"A lot of guys have really stepped up and bounced back," Pacioretty said. "That seems to be the case often times in big markets and then also when there's less pressure, less expectation. You saw with Vegas last year with the expectations and how they did.

"It's easier to skate down the ice when you don't have that on your shoulders."

A weight and burden Pacioretty now longer has to worry about.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press