P.K. Subban’s injury opens door for depth defencemen

Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban had some trouble watching from the press box Saturday night, but his absence allowed for a couple of depth players to shine.

MONTREAL — Halfway through Montreal’s 4-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild Saturday, I asked Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban what it was like having to watch a hockey game instead of participating in it.

His one-word response: “Terrible.”

Subban had appeared in 434 regular season games and another 55 in the Stanley Cup playoffs before suffering a non-serious neck injury with 2:26 remaining in Montreal’s 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres Thursday. Saturday’s game was the first he had ever missed due to injury.

“It’s a different feeling without him, a different energy,” said Canadiens assistant captain Tomas Plekanec after Saturday’s game.

At the time of Subban’s injury, he was still leading the Canadiens with 51 points. Captain Max Pacioretty caught up to him with an assist in Saturday’s game.

To say Subban was missed -- as the Canadiens only managed a single goal on 31 shots and allowed four on 22 Saturday -- would be understating it. You can’t replace a player that ranks fifth in the NHL in average time on ice (26:22), one who has been on the ice for more than 60 per cent of Montreal’s goals this season.

But something unexpected happened.

Canadiens defenceman Mark Barberio — a St. John's IceCap for the first 82 nights of the season — slotted into Subban's spot next to Andrei Markov and played his best game as a member of the team.

Baberio scored a goal, played a career-high 25:22 and held Minnesota’s most offensively potent forwards — Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle — off the score sheet.

“There was one play in the second period where Parise flipped the puck up in the air and I missed a stick-check on him but was still able to out-battle him for the puck,” said Barberio. “He plays so hard. I took a lot of pride in playing against him.”

Barberio was one of nine players in the Montreal lineup Saturday to have played at least a game with St. John’s this season. Defenceman Darren Dietz, playing in his first NHL game, was on the ice for 13:01, while forward Charles Hudon played 56 seconds more in the third contest of his young career.

Barberio, a native of Montreal’s west-island suburb, Kirkland, signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Canadiens after the Tampa Bay Lightning opted not to qualify him as a restricted free agent. He quickly fell victim to the team’s depth on defence, having had an excellent training camp before being forced down to St. John’s where he scored two goals and 18 assists in 26 games.

“He went there and he had a good attitude and he worked hard,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. “You never know what’s going to happen in a season but with experience, those types of players always get a chance and he’s certainly taken full advantage of it.

“I like his transition, I think he shows a lot of poise, makes good passes, plays with his head up and he’s able to support the attack. Where he’s constantly getting better is his defensive play.”

Barberio played 3:27 on the power play and another 2:05 shorthanded Saturday. By the end of the night, he had an appreciation for the responsibility Subban is regularly tasked with.

“It’s a lot of minutes and he makes it look easy,” said Barberio. “Obviously P.K.’s got a lot of talent, but people don’t see he how hard he works behind the scenes and off the ice. He’s in the gym a lot. It’s not a surprise to see him log those heavy minutes and do it well.”

But Subban is far from comfortable watching the action from a distance, even if he wasn’t forced to do so in a neck brace.

He was leaving the Bell Centre Saturday in a better mood than he appeared to be in during the game, moving toward the exit with a larger-than-usual contingent of the Canadiens’ walking wounded after his status was confirmed by Therrien as day-to-day.

A timeline for Subban’s return has not yet been established, but there’s no question as to where he’d rather be for Montreal’s remaining 13 games.