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Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (L) hits Montreal Canadiens Max Pacioretty into a glass stanchion during the second period of NHL hockey play in Montreal, March 8, 2011. According to media reports, Pacioretty suffered a broken vertebra and severe concussion on the play. Picture taken March 8, 2011.

Shaun Best/Reuters/Shaun Best/Reuters

There he was, skating around gingerly, back in hockey equipment a mere 24 days after the night that made everyone fear the worst.

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, who suffered a cervical fracture and concussion when Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara rode him into a rink-side brace on March 8, stepped onto the ice Friday for a brief, low-intensity session with fellow long-term absentee Andrei Markov.

Pacioretty is still weeks away from resuming full practice - his agent said this week he doesn't believe his client will return this NHL season - but it will have been a reassuring sight all the same for teammates and spectators who, in the long minutes the 22-year-old lay unconscious on the Bell Centre ice, were left to wonder if he might never play again.

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"It's part of his protocol, but he's still at the beginning of his rehabilitation," Habs head coach Jacques Martin cautioned.

When the intricate machinery that makes a hockey team tick over begins billowing smoke - as it has lately for the Habs - the instinct is to pop the cowling off and root out the cause.

A series of factors are to blame for the team's current blue period - two of them could be found on the practice rink at around 9:30 a.m. local time, powerless to help their teammates on a trip to New Jersey this weekend that kicks off a frantic final four games.

If the team has had to cope without Markov, its top defenceman, for 70 games this season, and Josh Gorges, its top shut-down guy, for 41, the subtraction of Pacioretty over the last 11 has perhaps been the coup de grace.

He was the team's leading scorer since the beginning of January, his spirited, physical play rounded out an undermanned top six and helped provide the scoring balance essential to keep opposing teams honest. Add in that half the players occupying spots on the top two lines are carrying injuries - a fourth, Jeff Halpern, will sit out the game against the Devils to nurse a lower-body problem - and you have a dire situation.

It hasn't helped that the decimated defence corps - also shorn of Jaroslav Spacek, who should return next week - has given up 35 goals in its last 11 games.

For all that, the Habs room is far from a gloomy place.

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"We're in a good position, it's in our hands," said goalie Carey Price, who is expected to match a team record with his 70th start of the season Saturday.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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