-- Max Pacioretty
said prior to the start of Montreal Canadiens
training camp that he was completely recovered from the neck injury and concussion that put a premature end to his 2010-11 season.
But until he actually took some contact, there was no way he could be 100 percent certain.
After playing in his second intra-squad scrimmage of training camp Monday, Pacioretty was happy to report that his neck withstood the challenge of taking a check and he's now ready to move on to the next step of playing a preseason game.
That will have to wait at least another day, though. Pacioretty is not part of the roster named for Tuesday's night's preseason game against Dallas at the Bell Center.
"It's good to finally get some physicality going, to take a couple of hits and give some as well," Pacioretty said. "My neck's feeling great and I'm ready to go."
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Pacioretty has endured a good deal since the evening of March 8 when he cracked a vertebra in his neck and suffered a concussion when his head hit a Bell Centre stanchion after a nasty collision along the boards in the neutral zone with Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara
The concussion symptoms did not last very long for Pacioretty – something he feels very lucky about considering the plight of some other players like Marc Savard
and Sidney Crosby
"I don't think I'm in the clear completely, I know some of these players many months down the road have experienced some symptoms," he said. "So I'm aware of that, and I hope to keep getting as lucky as I have with my situation."
The physical recovery from the neck injury may be largely finished, but the mental one will take a bit more time.
Pacioretty doesn't know yet how he will react on the ice to certain situations if concerns about his neck linger in his mind. He has no way to replicate the situation in which he was injured, so he can't face down the situation and reassure himself that he is past it.
"I'm not going to ask someone to hit me into the stanchion, but I'll take some hits and give some," he said jokingly. "It's felt good so far. Obviously there still is an injury there and I'll have to deal with it probably for the rest of my life, but it's been a lot better than I thought it would be at first."
However, Pacioretty has shown in the past that he has an ability to put injuries behind him quickly.
Back on Jan. 18 in Buffalo, Pacioretty was playing his 17th game of the season after his mid-December call-up from the minors. He was posted in front of the net when a slapshot from then-teammate James Wisniewski
struck him in the ribs.
Pacioretty was taken to hospital for tests, but ultimately was released in time to catch the flight home with his teammates and was on the ice at practice the following day. One of the very first things he did in that practice was to go in front of the net and try to tip some pucks.
"Half the battle of coming back from an injury is mental, if not all of it," Pacioretty said. "So in that situation I wanted to show myself that happens one out of a million times when you're in front of the net. It hit me in the ribs in the perfect place. So it was just to get rid of the fear, and I think it's the same thing with my neck. I want to get my nose dirty and take and give some hits so I can be mentally ready to go out there in a game."
Pacioretty also admitted that he may have to look at making some adjustments to his game, and that he hopes other players think of doing the same.
"When I skate down the board side I'm a little bit more aware now, and hopefully players on the other team will be more aware after my situation as well," he said. "I'm always the most competitive person, but sometimes I'm going to have to lay off in that situation and realize that I'm in a vulnerable position and the other person might not really care."
An added benefit for Pacioretty has been the free-agent acquisition of Erik Cole
, who suffered the exact same injury on March 4, 2006 when he was driven head-first into the boards by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik
Cole was able to come back and play in the final two games of the Carolina Hurricanes
Stanley Cup run in 2006, but he says that he feels the effects of that injury more than five years later.
"It just becomes part of the routine, just like guys who have had shoulder surgeries," said Cole, who Pacioretty uses as a daily source of advice. "There are little exercises you always do to loosen up and it just becomes part of the daily routine."
Pacioretty's ability to get back to the player he was at the time of his injury last season is a very important aspect of the Canadiens' ability to contend in the Eastern Conference this season.
He had formed a line with Scott Gomez
and Brian Gionta
that turned into a major offensive threat for head coach Jacques Martin. During his time on that line, Pacioretty scored 12 goals with 7 assists in 26 games – a pace that would make for a 37-goal, 22-assist season across 82 games.
"I was just playing with confidence," Pacioretty said. "I was comfortable in my situation playing with (Gomez) and Gionta. I've said it a bunch of times this summer, (Gomez) has taken a ton of heat but he also made me the player that was successful last year. I hope to pick up right where we left off."
Then there was an entirely separate aspect of Pacioretty's return with which he must continue to deal, and that was just how all-encompassing his injury became in NHL conversation in the weeks that followed the incident.
He admits now that the magnitude of it became a bit overwhelming, but he's eager now to be making news for entirely different reasons.
"I obviously like to be on the map and I like people to know who I am, but I want this situation to be in my past as soon as possible," he said. "I'm ready to move forward. I want to be praised for the way I play hockey and not for being remembered as the one who took that hit."