He matched one team playoff record and is just off the pace to eclipse another mark held by one of the greatest players in NHL history for the league’s most hallowed franchises.
In the current Stanley Cup playoff round, he has twice almost single-handedly defeated the befuddled Boston Bruins, the Presidents’ Trophy winner that lost just three games in regulation over the final 23 of the regular season and first five of the postseason.
He is Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, perhaps the most exciting player in the playoffs.
A simple sequence illustrated this principle in Game 3 on Tuesday. Swiftly skating backwards to face the oncoming rush, Subban suddenly shifted his weight and attempted to make a high-speed, open-ice body check, delivering a WWE-worthy elbow to the chest of Bruins forward Reilly Smith that sent the two players and Canadiens forward Thomas Vanek (who was temporarily knocked out of the game), to the ice.
As his roughing penalty expired, Subban raced out of the box as if shot from a cannon, and with skill and poise faked the Bruins’ Vezina Trophy-finalist goalie Tuukka Rask to the ice before beating him with a swift wrist shot on the glove side. He celebrated by sliding on one knee and delivering a punch to the air with his right hand before being chased down by his teammates.
With the two points Subban totaled in Game 3, he has 11 in seven playoff games, the fourth most in the league (those ahead of him have played at least two more games) and his points-per-game average of 1.38 ranks fourth in the playoffs. All of this from a defenseman, one of only two in the top 10 in scoring.
With points in six consecutive playoff games before the Habs lost 1-0 in overtime on Thursday, he equaled the Montreal record held by Hall of Famer Larry Robinson, who won six Stanley Cups as a defenseman for the Habs. Entering Game 5 of the second round, Subban is more than halfway to tying Robinson for the most points by a Canadiens defenseman in a single playoff season at 21.
To Subban’s junior hockey coach, George Burnett, this is nothing new.
"His competitiveness is up there with the best of them, as far as wanting to be on the ice in critical situations and wanting to play against the other team’s best players and wanting to be on the ice when the game’s on the line," said Burnett, general manager and coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls who also served as coach of the Edmonton Oilers for 35 games in 1994-95. "I don’t think that’s changed. That’s part of his DNA and his makeup . . .
"He’s a winner."
The Bruins and their fans are finding this out the hard way, but it’s not like Subban is a secret. Last season he won the Norris Trophy, which is given to the top defenseman in the NHL. He tied for the league lead among defensemen with 38 points in 42 games. Still, there was a lingering perception that the more deserving candidate might have been Minnesota’s Ryan Suter, who finished third in points with 32 and led the league in time on ice per game at 27:16, while Subban ranked 35th at 23:14.
So, postseason honors aside, these playoffs have been Subban’s coming-out party. Burnett has the perspective of coaching not only Subban, but also his two brothers: Malcolm, a goalie who was a first-round pick of the Bruins in 2012, and Jordan, a defenseman who was selected in the fourth round by Vancouver last year. (The brothers have two older sisters.) In contrasting the quieter Malcolm with P.K., Burnett used the word "abrasive" to describe P.K.
Burnett was referring to P.K.’s on-ice persona. Not the player who came to Belleville games during the lockout last season to watch his brothers play and missed the first 10 minutes of the game to make sure that every autograph was signed for kids waiting on line. Burnett said P.K. is very caring, both for his teammates and at charity events alike.
"It’s interesting to sit back if you’re sitting at a pub watching a game or you’re listening to people talk about him who don’t know him as I might because I’ve had a chance to work with him, it’s interesting to hear the comments about he’s ‘this’ and he’s ‘that,’" Burnett said, "and they have no idea . . .
"Some talk about his cockiness or — I don’t find him to be a selfish player at all. Look at the passes he makes and how he shares the puck."
Some, like Adam Proteau of The Hockey News, have written that such misperceptions about players like Subban and Winnipeg’s Evander Kane carry a racial bias. No one can doubt the racial invective hurled in the direction of Subban via social media following his game-winning goal in overtime against the Bruins in Game 1 of their series. Burnett said the same occurred with Malcolm when he was Canada’s goalie at the IIHF World Junior Championship and the national team failed to bring home the gold.
To his credit, P.K. took the high road after the Game 1 incidents.
"But I think they’re all programmed to take the high road, to overcome, to persevere to not lower themselves to the level of those that are making those types of statements," Burnett said of the family. ". . . (P.K.) just plugs away and keeps pushing through and that’s not going to bring he or any of the other boys down. That’s not the way they’re programmed.
"I think a lot of that has to do with mom and dad. To their credit. Karl, Mr. Subban, he’s a retired school principal. He worked in some very difficult areas in the city (Toronto). I think he’s well versed on how to handle a lot of these things with respect to diversity and the like and passed that along to the boys and daughters, I’m sure, as well."
Montreal resumes its series on Saturday in Boston for Game 5. If the Canadiens can get past the Bruins, it will rank as a monumental achievement. No small part of the credit would go to Subban, and the same would be true if Montreal goes on to become the first Canandian team to capture the Cup in 21 years (when the Habs won). Not bad for a second-round pick whom many viewed as a mid-round, power-play specialist.
"He brought it every night," Burnett said of Subban’s draft year. "He was a difference maker for sure."