Max Pacioretty had nearly a year to think about what it was going to feel like.
When the Washington Capitals winger tore his right Achilles’ tendon last January, just five months after he tore it for the first time in August 2022 and five games into his return, he knew his rehab process was going to be lengthy. It started as if he was going to return to the NHL — in the early, darkest days after he had surgery in Finland, when a part of him wondered if he’d ever be able to play hockey again — and became when he was going to return to the NHL, even as the specific date remained up in the air after Pacioretty resumed skating in October.
Because that date proved to be a moving target, Pacioretty had just a little bit more time to think about the moment that he was finally back.
“I think you realize what’s important to you,” Pacioretty said Dec. 29, as his return neared. “Not to say you don’t realize it before, but it kind of hits home a little bit harder when you’re laying in bed for almost a year straight. Obviously, my family and my kids, my wife, parents, have been tremendous support. You realize how much you want to do this for them. It’s not just for me to go out there and play hockey and do what I love. It’s for them, as well. My kids, all the boys play hockey, so they want to see Dad get back out there, and that’s what I’m working toward.”
On Jan. 3, 349 days after the injury, Pacioretty played in his first game with the Capitals, skating 11:47 in a 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils. It was far from a storybook return. Pacioretty finished the game a minus-1 and took a penalty, his only contributions on the stat sheet.
Realistically, Pacioretty knew that he couldn’t expect himself to step back in seamlessly after such a long layoff. But the competitive fire that kept the 35-year-old going through two separate rehab processes also meant that his first game wasn’t easy to swallow.
“Played five games in two years, almost, so there’s a lot of emotions,” Pacioretty said. “But at the end of the day, probably couldn’t get any worse than it did tonight for me. Got to just get better from it.”
After the game, as Washington Coach Spencer Carbery went through his usual post-win address to the team, he presented Pacioretty with the puck to commemorate his first point as a Capital. When his teammates implored him to make a speech, Pacioretty obliged.
An emotional Pacioretty rose from his seat, lifting the puck in his right hand and shaking it to emphasize his point.
“That was a rough two years for me, boys,” Pacioretty said. “If I learned one thing, it’s not to take things for granted. That game proved we have a special group in here. Let’s make sure we never take that feeling for granted.”
“That was awesome,” Strome said Tuesday. “It was either goose bumps or a little emotion from the rest of us for sure. … You can just see the type of leader and person that he is with the speech that he gave after the game. He hasn’t spoken in front of the team, obviously, yet, but when you see that, guys perk up and listen.”
Pacioretty said the speech was off the cuff — and joked that he didn’t have it written on his hand — but it was a natural message after everything he’s been through. He’s still not where he wants to be, but he now sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I thought it would be a little bit more similar to the first time, but that extra year adds up,” Pacioretty said. “There are areas of my game where I don’t feel as comfortable as last time, but then areas where I maybe feel a little bit better. I definitely feel more confident in my Achilles’, but then a couple areas, when you’ve been off the ice for so long, I guess it’s cumulative. My hands or [sense of] time and space are definitely not there yet.”
Pacioretty showed immediate chemistry with Strome and captain Alex Ovechkin when the trio was combined midway through Sunday’s game, but with Ovechkin’s status for Thursday’s game against Seattle up in the air, Pacioretty skated with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie on Wednesday. But regardless of who his linemates are against the Kraken, Pacioretty’s plan for his own game will be simple.
“The team’s in a spot where we want to build off that game [against the Kings],” he said. “Myself personally, I’m kind of aligned perfectly with that in the sense where I want to get better every game. I have gotten better every game, but I know that I have a long way to go. The good news is, hopefully I can be able to help my team win along the way. That’s what I plan to do.”