MONTREAL — There was at least one person at the Bell Centre who did everything in his power to keep P.K. Subban from being at the centre of attention on Saturday.
Brendan Gallagher wouldn’t admit that was his intention in discussing his Montreal Canadiens’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators, but actions speak louder than words. It seemed as though sparks flew every time Gallagher jumped over the boards and was in a head-to-head matchup with his former teammate. Bodies flew, too. And it was Gallagher initiating it all, with barbs thrown — both physical and verbal.
Things hit a boiling point early in the second period, when Gallagher had Subban lined up for a check and came barreling in at full steam. He missed, tripped on teammate Artturi Lehkonen’s stick and landed right on his face. A few shifts — and a couple of stitches to close a cut over his right eye — later, there was Gallagher profiting from a Filip Forsberg turnover.
He snapped a shot into Subban’s ankle, which sent the Predators defenceman reeling, and then he collected his own rebound and riffled it past Pekka Rinne for his 20th goal of the season.
It was after celebrating the goal with a sprint up the boards, an emphatic windmill fist pump and a war cry that Gallagher shuffled through high-fives from his teammates and leaned over to bark a few choice words at Subban, who was parking himself on the Predators’ bench.
“I don’t think he said anything to me after the goal, no,” Subban said, playing coy. “But some guys from the bench were saying stuff, but I couldn’t hear it. It’s so loud in this building, you know the way it is. But I’m sure it’s pretty quiet over there right now with two points on our side.”
The war of words between Subban and Gallagher had begun at some point just after 7:15 p.m., and it continued well after the Canadiens and Predators had left the ice after 10 p.m.
“I don’t know why we’re talking about him,” said Gallagher. “That’s what he wants. You can let him talk about himself all night. I’m sure he’ll give you guys enough lines. I’m not going to help that out.”
Subban was asked about having to face Gallagher’s antagonizing smile after seeing it unsettle so many opponents when the two were teammates.
“I didn’t see a smile from him tonight, to be honest with you,” Subban said. “I just saw the blood dripping down his face when he tried to hit me and fell down. So that’s what I saw. I didn’t see anything else. Other than that, it was just a normal game as usual, just competing in the battles and that’s it. Just trying to outwork the other guy on the other side.”
It didn’t appear so normal for Subban at all.
He had come to the city he spent his first six NHL seasons in with 43 points to his name and a chance to break his career high in goals (15). But he looked nothing like the player making a strong bid for his second Norris Trophy in this game, and he appeared totally distracted.
Perhaps it was the “P.K., P.K.,” chants revving Subban up beyond his control, or maybe it was about facing his former teammates for just the third time since being traded to Nashville for Shea Weber in the summer of 2016. Whatever it was, it produced a few horrific turnovers and a couple of defensive lapses that probably should’ve cost his team the game.
“Not very good. I mean, it’s tough,” Subban said in self-assessment. “There were some good points to the game for me, but it wasn’t my all-around best game. Some bounces didn’t go my way, but for me the most important thing was getting the two points. I knew it was going to be a tough game for me, like it always is coming here. There’s a lot going on, so it’s tough.
“I just try to keep the game simple. We tried to build some momentum off the power play, couldn’t really get it going, so it was tough. It just felt like every play, every time you had the puck, it was a chip or a poke or a clear. So not much rhythm out there for me personally, but we got it done.”
Part of Subban’s lapse surely could be credited to Gallagher, who was at his very best.
It was Gallagher who led the charge, scoring that big first goal, notching four shots and four hits and inspiring his teammates to a 49-shot performance.
“He’s a character player and every team needs guys like him,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “He comes to play hard every night. Even if it’s not his best night, you know his effort is his best effort. Everybody who comes to work every day doesn’t always have their best, but he’s consistent.
“He’s a character guy. He gives your team energy. And those guys that work hard like that deserve to get rewarded, and I think this year he’s doing everything that he can and pucks are going in for him and deservingly so. So I like his game, I like his attitude and I like his compete level, and his teammates like him, respect him and there’s everything to like about a guy like Brendan Gallagher and those are the kind of guys you win with.”
It wasn’t Gallagher’s fault that the Canadiens didn’t win on this night. It’s not his fault they have lost 33 of the 51 games this season.
The Canadiens rank 26th in the NHL standings, and Gallagher has taken that personally. It’s why he wasn’t all that content about hitting the 20-goal mark after injuries — and some bad luck — deprived him of an opportunity to do so in each of the last two seasons.
“Obviously I wanted to be better this year than I was last year,” Gallagher said. “I wanted to be more consistent. But other than that, if I’m being honest, I had more fun scoring 10 goals last year (and making the playoffs) than I had this year. It’s been a bit of a frustrating season for the group, and that’s kind of why you play the game is to win hockey games. So it really doesn’t mean much.”
Out-duelling Subban and doing everything possible to take him out of the spotlight didn’t mean much to Gallagher, either.