-- MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens are cruising. The Habs lead the Atlantic Division by five points -- and Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty has helped lead his team both on and off the ice. The 28-year-old winger is Montreal's leading scorer, with 26 points (13-13) in 32 games. I sat down with Pacioretty on Wednesday to discuss why teammate? Alexander Radulov?gets a bad rap, what happened to Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, whether it's harder to play in Montreal than anywhere else and why the Canadiens can't get enough fantasy football.
ESPN.com: First off, it's championship week in most fantasy football leagues. I'm sure the Canadiens players run a league. Can you reveal to us who got to the championship game?
Pacioretty: Actually, it says a lot about our team that we had so many players in our league -- we had 20 guys in it -- that we formed teams.? Mark Barberio and Phillip Danault are on a team and they're facing? Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry?in the finals.
ESPN.com: How did you do this year?
Pacioretty: Not great, I didn't make the playoffs. Adrian Peterson's injury was a big blow.
ESPN.com: Who do you think will win your championship?
Pacioretty: I really hope Danault and Barberio. I can't have Gally win. We're always going up against Gally and we vetoed one of his trades earlier this year and he's still pissed off about it. I just can't have Gallagher win.
ESPN.com: OK, on to hockey. December has been good to Max Pacioretty: You've had eight goals in eight games. Is this as good as you've felt all season?
Pacioretty: Well, it's good for the team. I don't feel like I'm playing any different. I know it was revealed I had an injury [he played through a fractured foot in November]. But you know what? I've played a bunch of different roles this year. When? Alex Galchenyuk and Alexander Radulov?were really feeling it, and they were the offensive guys, I played more of a defensive role -- and I'm willing to accept that. I'm willing to go out for a lot of draws in our own end and go against top guys.
Stats are something that everyone looks at, but we don't have egos on this team, myself included. If we're expected to play a role or hone in on playing some good defense, we're willing to do that.
ESPN.com: You're a guy who's very aware of his stats, but not for the reason people might think. I think you use them to try to get better. Is that accurate?
Pacioretty: Yeah. The thing I'm interested in a lot is puck touches, and where I'm touching the puck. You look at the top players -- they get so many puck touches, so that's something that I've tried to work on this year. Rather than just have one [scoring] chance, one and done, a guy like Radulov has really taught me the importance of holding on to the puck, not only to create time and space for yourself, but to make it hard on the opposition. It makes them defend, makes them have to stop. When they stop, flat-footed, it's easier on your linemates to get open and create time and space.
It may not always pay off for me or my line, but I think as we wear teams down with the style of play we're playing, it can work for the next line or the line after that. It's a continuous thing.
ESPN.com: This is your second season as captain. How much have you learned and grown in that role?
Pacioretty: A lot. What really matters to me are the opinions of the players on this team, the management, the coaches, because they know what goes on behind closed doors. I don't blame the people on the outside for not knowing, because we don't reveal a lot.
It's a privilege to be in this room. It's a privilege to know the information that we know. But a lot of guys who have come in this year have made it a lot easier on me. Webs [ Shea Weber]?is one of the best leaders in the league. And he comes in with tons of experience, a lot of great experience, especially internationally, where he's had a lot of success. He's helped me tremendously.
But also Radulov, a guy who, when he came here, people were asking me about his attitude and off-ice stuff. But it just so happens that was completely wrong. He's helped me out as a leader as well. He brings a lot to this team, both on and off the ice. I didn't know him personally, I had only heard what everybody else had heard before he came. It's just amazing how different he is than the perception of what he was. He's definitely a leader on this team as well.
ESPN.com: Take us into the room during games, or before games. What's it like in here in terms of guys talking, the interplay between all the leaders?
Pacioretty: Everyone is so different. It's a really good blend. No one is really that loud on this team, other than Shawsy [ Andrew Shaw]. Weisey [ Dale Weise]?was like that last year. You have to have a guy like that, someone who is always joking around and bouncing off the walls and saying lots of stuff.?
For the most part guys feed off of that. Mitchy [ Torrey Mitchell]?jokes around a lot and keeps things positive. Then Webs, me, Pricer [ Carey Price], Marky [ Andrei Markov]?... we're more likely to say something when it's important, to try to be positive. But I think everything revolves those guys who joke around. Every team has them. Not a day goes by without five pranks from Shawsy. We kind of feed off that. It keeps the good vibes up.
ESPN.com: Speaking of vibes, they weren't great at the World Cup for Team USA. Looking back now, is that like a blur?
Pacioretty: It all happened so quick. My experience especially was ... well, under the microscope. It was so funny, but also frustrating in terms of the perception of what was going on between me and Torts [head coach John Tortorella]. It was so [different] from the reality of it.
That's just something you have to deal with sometimes. [Tortorella] told me that he felt bad about how things got portrayed. You know what? He texted me after we played Columbus. And I'm sure I'll talk to him when we're in Columbus [on Friday]. He's someone I respect a lot. I know he respects me.
The reality is that I had a great relationship with Torts. That tournament, everything happened so quickly. It's almost like you lose one game and your tournament can be over. I'm definitely not happy with the results, but I look forward to building off that.
ESPN.com: It doesn't look promising -- in terms of NHL participation -- for the Olympics next year in South Korea, although much can change over the next month. Has it dawned on some of you veteran players that if the NHL doesn't go to the Games in South Korea, there might not be another Olympic chance for many of you?
Pacioretty: I'm not sure how I feel about it. I'm not completely sold one way or another. I'm open-minded. I see everyone's point of view. It's not like I'm crazy for one thing or the other. I love representing my country. I haven't had great results playing for Team USA, as a team and personally. If the opportunity came, I'd love to have a chance to change that. But if not, I understand the other side of it as well.
ESPN.com: You've told me in the past how much it would mean to you to win a Stanley Cup here in Montreal. Not all franchises are created equal. But it comes with sacrifices, doesn't it? There have been ups and downs here. It's obviously worth it in your mind, but have you ever woken up one morning over the years here and said, "I'm going to ask for a trade. This is too much?"
Pacioretty: Every time you feel down on yourself, when you go out there on the ice on a Saturday night at the Bell Centre, everything is forgotten because of the atmosphere, the fans ...
All the noise and outside stuff, really, is fake. When people say, "Those guys can't even go to the grocery store [without getting bothered] ..." Well, I go to the grocery store all the time. I've never heard a person say something negative to me in the nine years I've been here. Everyone is so happy and passionate about the team. I think the negative stuff kind of gets blown out of proportion.
It would be easy to hide at home and never experience what the real fans are like. But when you go out to dinner, you go out in public, everyone is just so happy to see you. And you can see how much of a difference you can make, just meeting kids and doing charity stuff. Everyone is so appreciative of it.
I think that whole narrative [of how hard it is to play in Montreal] is completely blown out of proportion. Guys around the league ask me all the time what it's like here. And I tell them the truth: It's amazing. We have great support.
The worst thing to do would be to hide in your house. The reality is, no matter how bad things are sometimes, you go out and people are excited to meet a Montreal Canadien. They appreciate the work we put in every day. And this a group that works hard. The fans, the media, the city, have respected the work we've put in this year. And it's motivated us to play for them as well.