MONTREAL -- Max Pacioretty has been the Montreal Canadiens' leading scorer for five straight seasons, the offensive force on a team that struggles to score goals, which makes the star winger’s contributions even that more important. They’ll need his offense and then some in a tough second-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. We caught up with the 26-year-old Team USA Olympian on the eve of Game 1:
PIERRE LEBRUN: The NFL draft goes over the next few days. I understand you have a connection to one of the teams.
MAX PACIORETTY: Yeah, my uncle [Henry Sroka] is a scout for the Cowboys, a pro scout, so when I was down in Dallas -- and my sister lives in Dallas now -- when I was down there I got to see the facility and meet a lot of the people. It sounds weird but I’m a Giants fan. It’s hard to have family working for the Cowboys when I’m a Giants fan. But when the Giants are out, I’m rooting for the Cowboys.
LEBRUN: Go Cowboys. Max, let me ask you about your health. You missed the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs with an upper-body injury. It must be hard to come back in the playoffs off an injury when the game has risen to 100 miles per hour. How do you feel?
PACIORETTY: I’m feeling really good. It is a lot harder, especially [more] than what I thought, coming back from an injury like that at this time of year. Coming back in the playoffs, it’s a lot faster than you think. Maybe at times you think it’s going to be even faster and you start thinking a little too much out there. But at the end of the day, I was happy with how the round went and how I progressed through the round. I wasn’t expecting to jump in and be at my best right away. But I think I got better as the series went on. It’s helpful that I was able to get some rest now, and hopefully get some strength in the gym, and feel better for this upcoming series.
LEBRUN: A lot has been made of the fact that Tampa Bay won all five games against you guys this season. What’s that like as players? What does that mean to you?
PACIORETTY: Honestly, people would think that would make me nervous or that I would think about that, but I don’t think about that at all. I’m worried about our game: how I play personally and how our team plays. A playoff matchup is so different than the regular season. I think one of those games could have been a different result had I not gift-wrapped a breakaway for [Steven] Stamkos. That’s the difference in one of those games alone. I think people look into it too much. Just like people are looking into Tampa playing seven, and they say they should be tired. It’s the playoffs; you find ways to play your best hockey no matter who you’re playing, no matter how tired or dinged up you are. That’s what we’re expecting from Tampa, and that’s what we’re expecting from ourselves.
LEBRUN: You guys are entering your fifth playoff series in two years. That’s a lot of playoff hockey. What gains are there from that playoff experience?
PACIORETTY: I see huge improvements from our team, especially mentally. That experience has been very helpful, especially this first series. It would have been easy to say Ottawa is gaining momentum. They’re rallying behind a new goalie ... after coming out as probably the hottest team in the league for 30 games. We could have maybe got a little bit scared and got a little behind our game and felt pressure. But honestly, I didn't feel that. I felt that guys were staying positive through that time where the Senators won two in a row. We found a way to close it out on the road. I’m not sure the result would have been the same if it wasn't for the prior playoff experience the last two years.
LEBRUN: Speaking of pressure, Steven Stamkos has taken some heat for not scoring a goal now in 10 straight playoff games. You’re the top goal scorer on this team, you understand the pressure probably that he feels in terms of what people expect from goal scorers.
PACIORETTY: Yeah, I felt that heat after two games. But at the end of the day, it’s a team sport. Tampa was able to win the series, and I watched Game 7; he was one of the best players on the ice. If the puck doesn't go in, how much are you going to be able to control? He contributes in other areas to that team. And the fact that they were able to win that series without him scoring in seven games, he can’t be not playing good hockey for that to happen. He plays big minutes for that team, and he was able to contribute in different ways. I feel that often gets overlooked as a goal scorer. People just look at the "G" column and see how many tallies you have, but I think it’s unfair for him to get that type of criticism. We know he’s going to be playing his best starting with Game 1. That’s what we’re expecting, and we got to find ways to make it hard on him.
LEBRUN: You have scored 76 goals over the past two regular seasons. I hear that you’re hard on yourself --
LEBRUN: But have you tried to be better about that or is it what drives you?
PACIORETTY: It’s what drives you, but it’s also what my mom says is my own worst enemy. I’m very hard on myself. I’m never satisfied. Being around a lot of great players the past [few] years, they’ve had that mentality as well. I’m happy that I have that personality, but at the same time, my wife isn't. There are times where I can be dead silent for a day. Or not sleep all night, tossing and turning. Things have to be perfect for me to be somewhat satisfied. I can go out and have a hat trick, and I’ll come home and my wife will be like, "Great game!" And I’ll say, "Yeah, but I missed that one opportunity." I’m my own worst enemy, but I think it also drives me to keep getting better and better.
LEBRUN: This is obviously an exciting time of year, the playoffs. When you were growing up a Rangers fan in New Canaan, Connecticut, what was your favorite moment?
PACIORETTY: I remember ’94. I was 5 years old, but I do remember it, being in my basement watching. I was such a big fan of [Mark] Messier, [Brian] Leetch, [Mike] Richter, [Alexei] Kovalev ... I had a lot of hard years as a Rangers fan after that. But I really enjoyed that ’94 run, and I remember buying the VHS tape after and had my ’94 Cup hat that I wore every day for five years. I think it was a great time because I was just getting into hockey then, and it made me love the sport even more.
LEBRUN: Name me your favorite non-hockey athlete over the years. I have a feeling he wore pinstripes.
PACIORETTY: Yeah, Derek Jeter. I don’t know, you just can’t be classier and more of a leader than him in my eyes. And have that much success. I think there was something about never having a Yankees captain again because it would be disrespectful to Derek Jeter. That alone tells you about how much people respected him and his teammates.
LEBRUN: I’m guessing it’s crossed your mind that Jeter played for the Yankees and you play for hockey’s version of that franchise.
PACIORETTY: Oh yeah, we always talk about that. I do see a lot of similarities. Whenever I think that maybe things are hard here or people are hard on me, I think of guys like A-Rod or guys who really have it hard. The Yankees are under a microscope even more so than we are. But you do see a lot of comparisons between the Yankees and the Canadiens.
LEBRUN: Thanks for your time, Max
PACIORETTY: You’re welcome.