MONTREAL — Here he is not the villain. Here he is not the target of garbage. Here – and maybe only here – he is the hero, P.K. Subban, the playmaking defenseman extraordinaire, the catalyst of the Montreal Canadiens.
It was all on display Tuesday night at the Bell Centre – the love, the brilliance – as the Habs beat the Boston Bruins, 4-2, and took a 2-1 lead in this second-round series.
[Watch: PK Subban delivers hit, serves penalty, scores breakaway goal]
After Subban came out of the penalty box and scored on a breakaway in the first period, the fans stood through a TV timeout, spinning their rally towels, chanting, “P.K.! P.K.! P.K!” In the third period, they watched a montage of Subban highlights set to The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?” After the final horn, they roared as he was announced the game’s first star. He took a twirl and tossed pucks into the stands.
“This,” Subban said, “is a great place to play. It’s such a historic franchise, and the fans here are so passionate. I’m very happy that they support me.”
The Canadiens are 6-1 in these playoffs, and Subban is the biggest reason why, as good as goaltender Carey Price has been. Subban has 11 points, three more than anyone else on the team. He has had two points in each game in this series. In the long, storied history of the Habs, only two other defensemen have had three straight multi-point games in the playoffs: Larry Robinson and J.C. Tremblay.
Subban scored two power-play goals in Game 1, including the winner in double overtime, which prompted a deluge of beer cups, water bottles, racist tweets and news stories – exaggerated news stories or not. He had two assists in Game 2 (and handled questions about the Twitter controversy with class after a 5-3 loss, saying it took away from great hockey). He had a goal and an assist in Game 3. He will cash in as a restricted free agent this summer.
[Watch: Habs' Dale Weise scores winner versus Bruins in Game 3]
It is not news that Subban is good. He has made an impact in the playoffs before. He won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman last season. But this is the brightest he has shone on the biggest stage, and a week from his 25th birthday, he continues to grow. Watch him. Not that you can take your eyes off him.
“He’s always great offensively – and defensively, too,” said Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray, making sure to add the second part. “I just think he makes it a little bit easier on himself [in the playoffs], plays a simpler game, which is not always easy when you have to so much skill and can skate through everybody. I just think he’s playing hockey the right way, and he’s getting rewarded for it. We’re getting rewarded for it.”
Subban has a reputation as a high-risk, high-reward player. He made Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics and won gold, but he was the eighth defenseman, even as the reigning Norris winner. He stayed behind Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo and Drew Doughty on the right side. Coach Mike Babcock felt the risk of a critical mistake was not worth the reward offensively.
Fans love flash and the thrill of unpredictability. Coaches love details and the comfort of predictability. Subban cemented his status in Babcock’s mind when he pinched in the final seconds of a period in the preliminary round with Team Canada holding a 2-0 lead. He didn’t recognize the situation. He didn’t play the clock. The stakes would be too high in the medal round for him to play a large role.
The dynamic is different in the NHL. The good far outweighs the bad with Subban at this level, and the Canadiens need him far more than the Canadians did. Still, Habs coach Michel Therrien benched Subban as recently as April 4, sitting him for the balance of a period after he was arguably directly responsible for two goals by the Ottawa Senators. Therrien has often been stingy with his praise.
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But look at Subban now. Listen to Price: “He’s controlling his emotions very well, and he’s being very composed.” And listen to Therrien: “P.K. is a gamer, and this is what I appreciate with him. Our attitude as a team, we’ve got a business attitude. We’re approaching the game [with a] business mindset.”
“I have not changed how I’ve played the game since I was 16 years old,” Subban said. “I’ve matured. I’ve gotten older. I’ve gotten a little bit of facial hair. I’ve learned. But I play the same game. I’ve always played well defensively. I’ve always moved my puck. I’ve always been a team guy. But I don’t think anybody expected me to do it at this level.”
Can you believe Subban was a second-round pick in 2007, not a first-rounder? He earned a secondary assist on the Canadiens’ first goal Tuesday night when he chipped a puck to the point, Thomas Vanek made a spectacular slap pass down low and Tomas Plekanec banged it in. Subban took a roughing penalty when he missed a hit and raised an arm – taking out Bruins winger Reilly Smith and Vanek, too – but came out of the box and made a Vezina Trophy finalist look silly. He took a pass from Lars Eller, broke in alone, deked and slipped the puck past the left pad of Tuukka Rask. He went down on one knee, pumped his right fist, punched the air and yelled.
He did little things, too, in his game-high 27:50 of ice time. A pass barely went over the blue line on a power play. Instead of taking precious seconds to start a full regroup, Subban protected the puck from Bruins penalty-killer Daniel Paille, waited for his teammates to exit the zone and then entered the zone so the Canadiens could set right back up again.
Though he was on the ice when the Bruins made it 3-2 late in the third and said he was “pissed off” about it, he was on the ice in the final minute to protect a 3-2 lead – and, yes, accidently on purpose bumped the net off the moorings as he went back to retrieve a puck on the end boards. No call. That kind of thing is a reason he is a villain elsewhere.
For the most part, though, he has kept the villainy to a minimum. Subban said he spoke to Canadiens legend Serge Savard before the playoffs.
“You don’t want to poke the bear,” Subban said with a laugh. “I thought we did a good job of playing smart. You’ve got to recognize the situation. A wise man once told me – Serge Savard – play the clock. Recognize the score. Recognize the timing of the game and make sure you’re doing the right things.”
P.K. Subban is doing the right things, amid the garbage in Boston, amid the love in Montreal.
“I just try to focus on the game,” Subban said. “There’s so much emotion in that building, you try not to get too caught up into it. You try to use it the right way and control your emotions. They’ve been there for us all year, and they’ve been there for over 100 years doing the same thing. But it’s a good feeling when you know you have the support of a fan base.”
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