With stakes sky-high for Habs, Subban is thriving

Roger Millions reports from Montreal where players and coaches comment on playing with and against defenceman P.K. Subban.

MONTREAL – The beating heart of hockey pulses right through this fine city and no one sets the populace aflutter quite like P.K. Subban.

The man has been a force of nature this spring. It’s as if he has decided to take hold of the Montreal Canadiens fortunes and skate them to safety. Subban is "pure power," according to teammate Mike Weaver, and he certainly has some grace mixed in, too.

"He controls everything," Habs winger Dale Weise said Wednesday after practice.

The Boston Bruins have had absolutely no answer for Subban through three games of this second-round series. They must find one. Of course, it might be easier to calculate the square root of 76 off the top of your head than stop Subban right now.

And while the Bruins have been working their way through the calculations Montreal has seized a 2-1 lead in the series. Subban is at the centre of it all with two points in each game, pushing his overall points streak to six. The only other Habs defencemen to accomplish that in the playoffs are Larry Robinson and J.C. Tremblay.

This is new territory for a player that hasn’t yet turned 25. He has been a mainstream star for quite some time now – winning the Norris Trophy last season is evidence of that – and will be paid like a superstar when he signs a new contract this summer. If he were to continue carrying the Habs in this manner through the playoffs it would eventually morph into the stuff of legend.

On Wednesday, Bruins forward Shawn Thornton compared Subban to Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer and no one even flinched. He has certainly had the biggest impact of any player in this series, and perhaps, the entire Stanley Cup playoffs to date (Los Angeles Kings centre Anze Kopitar would also have a rightful place in that conversation).

What has made Subban so effective is his ability to control the puck and break open the game. There is also a sense that he has found a way to harness his considerable gifts and perform with a higher level of composure and purpose than in the past. He has come of age; the rest of the Habs are playing follow the leader.

When Subban scored two power-play goals at a hostile TD Garden in Game 1, including the double-overtime winner, his non-celebrations sent a much more powerful message than any chest thumping or logo pulling ever will. The way he brushed aside the garbage that was thrown at his team, and the racist garbage that was spewed about him on Twitter afterwards, was nothing short of admirable.

"You know what the funny thing is, is that we get stronger as a league," Subban said. "You see how people come together and it’s great. And it’s not just about me, the NHL’s got tons of players from different backgrounds, from different places around the world.

"That’s what makes this league so special and what makes sports so special: Bringing everybody together."

Here in Montreal his dynamic presence is turning the devout denizens into believers. As much as the Bell Centre is the Church of Price, it’s also where the locals come to worship Subban. After breaking from the penalty box on Tuesday night and fooling Tuukka Rask with a forehand deke, the crowd chanted his name right through a television timeout.

It was interesting to hear Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli describe Game 3 as a "game of frustration" for his squad. There’s a feeling inside the Canadiens dressing room that Subban had a lot to do with that – and not just because he dislodged the net from its moorings in the final minute while Boston was pushing for the tying goal.

"He’s confident, he believes in himself and I think that rubs other teams the wrong way at times and gets them off their game," Habs centre Daniel Briere said. "He’s been really good at it. For us, we’re trying to ride that wave."

In Montreal, the playoffs aren’t so much seen as they are felt. Boston is one of North America’s great sports cities, but even coach Claude Julien observed that the excitement around the Bruins is different than what you find here.

"This is their team," said Julien, who speaks with authority as a former Habs coach. "We’re in Boston, we’ve got a bunch of pro teams, but the Montreal Canadiens is what people really live for around here."

There were an awful lot of folks walking around the streets on Wednesday with a big smile on their face. The sun was out and a city was taking its cues from the upbeat Subban, who projects enthusiasm even while "eating his breakfast," according to Weise.

Perhaps the best compliment of all is that he’s able to play happy at a time of year that is stressful for so many others. The Canadiens remain the underdog against Boston and know in their heart of hearts that the Bruins won’t go down quietly. This won’t be easy.

Yet, with the stakes so high, Subban is thriving. Buoyed by playing big minutes and racking up 11 points in seven games, he is embracing possibility rather than being weighed down by any doubts. He is a player committed to owning the moment.

"He wants the puck on his tape when the game is on the line," Briere said. "He wants to make the big play. I’ve always believed that that’s how it happens – you’ve got to want it."

The desire burns strongly here.

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