Gordon: Habs need red-hot Pacioretty to keep having fun

March 2, 2014

Pro athletes are programmed with an insatiable desire to win, it doesn't mean they don't benefit from extra prodding.

Rivalries, personal hatred, revenge – all add a bit of piquant to NHL contests.

So, it appears, does friendship.

The Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty and Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk have known each other since their early teens – the former is from Connecticut, the latter is from New Jersey – and are close pals in addition to being U.S. Olympic teammates.

In the latest instalment of Leafs-Habs on Saturday at the Bell Centre, Pacioretty wasn't about to be upstaged by his buddy.

Both players scored first-period goals typical of their styles (Pacioretty on a hard shot from the slot, van Riemsdyk on a slick tip near the goalmouth), then van Riemsdyk raised the ante with a gorgeous goal on a short-handed breakaway in the third period.

That was good.

But anything you can do I can do better, and Pacioretty had the last laugh in overtime, burying a power-play shot past Jonathan Bernier to win it 4-3 (Bernier had been whistled for a penalty moments before for covering a puck outside his crease).

"It's just fun. You see JVR score a couple of goals there, obviously I don't want him to have bragging rights next time I see him," Pacioretty said. "It's friendly competition, you get that with a couple of guys on different teams, it just makes the game a little more fun for me."

Beware the player who's having a good time.

A lot of the attention is justly lavished on key Habs pillars such as goalie Carey Price and defenceman P.K. Subban, but Pacioretty is the most effective offensive weapon on a team that doesn't score a lot.

Montreal embarks this week on its late-season West Coast swing – where previous seasons have gone to die – in good shape, but if the Habs are to contend for a home seed in the playoffs, the next four games could prove crucial.

"We know the Leafs are right on our tail, the way the playoff race has gone the last couple of years things end up so close, down to the wire, getting the extra point [Saturday] is a good feeling," Pacioretty said. "But we have a lot to prove, I think, against Western Conference teams, and hopefully we can do that on this trip."

The Habs, third in the East, will be bolstered by Price's return from injury – Peter Budaj managed to go 2-0-1 in his absence and said, "Sure I want to shine, but you play for the logo on the front, not the name on the back."

For those keeping score, Pacioretty now has 29 goals this season to van Riemsdyk's 26, five of which have come against the Habs.

True, the Leafs left winger has more points (52 to 41), but he's also played seven more games.

Pacioretty, on the other hand, is tied with Chicago's Patrick Sharp for goals scored by left wingers – his eight game-winners trail only Anaheim's Corey Perry, who has nine.

Any discussion of the league's in-form players must involve U.S. Olympian Phil Kessel – who scored a goal and an assist against Montreal and now has 13 goals and 31 points in his past 17 games – but Pacioretty (27 goals in his past 41 games, 10 in his past 16) is the hottest NHL goalscorer not named Ovechkin.

The goals only reveal part of the picture.

According to the so-called "fancy stats," Pacioretty is also a puck-possession behemoth – the website extraskater.com's advanced measures put him the same neighbourhood as elite players such as Boston's Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Minnesota's Zach Parise (his Montreal linemate Brendan Gallagher is up there as well).

Now consider the 25-year-old, the Habs' scoring leader in the past two seasons, had only two goals and two assists in his first 12 games as he struggled with injury.

Pacioretty's regular centre David Desharnais coincidentally sputtered (one assist in his 19 games) and finally got untracked with a shootout winner in Columbus on Nov. 15.

Two games later, he and Pacioretty smashed open the floodgates against the Minnesota Wild.

The latter scored a hat trick, and hasn't really looked back since. Desharnais, meanwhile, has totalled 34 points over the same span.

Stats heads will argue Pacioretty's shot percentage is unsustainable (14.7 per cent this season, his career average is 10.9), but don't bet on it.

Since November, he has scored at a better per-game clip than Kessel, and at the current rate has a decent shot at becoming Montreal's first 40-goal scorer since Vincent Damphousse in 1993-94.

If the Habs are to snap another drought stretching to that era, expect Pacioretty to be a major reason why.

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