WASHINGTON -- Max Pacioretty is too competitive to be satisfied with simply making it back from tearing his Achilles tendon.


So, he wasn’t looking for silver linings after his season and Washington Capitals debut ended with a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils at Capital One Arena on Wednesday.

“It was a lot of emotions,” Pacioretty said. “Obviously, I haven't played. I’ve played five games in two years almost, so yeah, a lot of emotions. But at the end of the day, it probably couldn't get any worse than it did tonight for me.”

Pacioretty’s frustration with his play was understandable. So was the rust in his game.

The 35-year-old left wing had not played since tearing his right Achilles tendon for the second time while playing for the Carolina Hurricanes against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 19, 2023. That came only five games into his return from tearing his Achilles tendon the first time, which occurred during offseason training and resulted in surgery to repair it Aug. 10, 2022.

Still, though Pacioretty didn’t have a memorable night, failing to register a shot on goal, taking a penalty that led to a power-play goal and being on the ice for a goal-against in 11:47 of ice time, there was a significance to this game for him that he will perhaps appreciate more with time.

After Pacioretty tore his Achilles the second time, he wondered if his NHL career was over after 15 seasons. He sought medical opinions from specialists in North America and Europe before having surgery in Turku, Finland on Jan. 25, 2023.

The road back from that took patience and countless hours of rehab and skating before he took his first shift 2:03 into the first period Wednesday.

And that was just the beginning of the next step for him.

“It’s not easy at his age to step back into a National Hockey League game, especially against this team that I would argue is one of the fastest in the League,” Capitals coach Spencer Carbery said. “So, yeah, it’s going to be a work in progress.”

Washington defenseman John Carlson has some idea of what Pacioretty went through after missing three months last season while recovering from a skull fracture and lacerated temporal artery. But Carlson said his experience was “nothing even close” to what Pacioretty went through.

“It’s hard climbing the mountain and getting shut down again and climbing the mountain like he did,” Carlson said. “He went through a lot and persevered and that takes a lot of courage, a lot of strength, mental fortitude to be able to do that. Cheers to him on that, because that’s incredible.”

Washington signed Pacioretty, a six-time 30-goal scorer, to a one-year, $2 million contract (with an additional $2 million in performance-based incentives) on July 1, hoping he’d be able to supplement its offense whenever he was ready to play. The Capitals (18-12-6) are 30th in the NHL in goals per game (2.36), so they could use the scoring help. But they’ve been able to survive by playing stingy team defense and getting strong goaltending for much of the season before the youth Devils burned them with their speed and skill Wednesday.

If Pacioretty can regain his scoring touch, that will be a big boost to their bid to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing last season for the first time since 2014.

“It could help us significantly just by giving us a little bit more balance,” Carbery said.

But it’s not going to happen overnight.

Pacioretty acknowledged that he never felt like he caught up to the speed of the game skating on a line with Dylan Strome and Matthew Phillips against New Jersey. He was caught out of position leading to his tripping penalty against defenseman John Marino 9:15 into the game.

That the Devils converted on the ensuing power play, with Nico Hischier scoring on a deflection to increase their lead to 2-0 just 35 seconds later, undoubtedly didn’t make Pacioretty feel any better.

Pacioretty, Strome and Phillips were also caught on the ice for an extended shift in their zone leading up to Dawson Mercer’s goal that increased New Jersey’s lead to 3-1 at 8:08 of the second period.

“It's a tricky situation right now,” Pacioretty said. “I think I had one practice with a line. It’s that time of year where you don’t practice much. You don't want to use that as an excuse, but it definitely felt like I practiced one time with a line."

Pacioretty’s only shot attempt was blocked by Devils defenseman Kevin Bahl at 15:17 of the first period. His best moment was a pass from below the goal line to the left of the net to set up Strome for a good scoring chance from the slot 3:07 into the second period, but Devils goalie Nico Daws stopped Strome’s shot with his blocker.

Pacioretty should feel more comfortable with more repetitions in practices and games, though.

"I hope so,” he said. “I’ve never been in this position before, so I hope so.”

Pacioretty will try to shake off more of the rust when Washington hosts Carolina at Capital One Arena on Friday (7 p.m. ET; MNMT, BSSO). Facing the Hurricanes will be another reminder of what Pacioretty endured through in the previous two seasons.

It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate that Wednesday, having his wife Katia, and their five children watching him play again. He just expects more of himself.

“It meant a lot to have my family here,” Pacioretty said. “All day, the kids were pumped up to see me out there. I think it's a testament to what my family's been able to overcome. To my knowledge, no one has been through this injury that I've been through this many times and come back from it, so I'm definitely proud of that, but not proud of my game.”

Related Content