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Canadiens' Subban elevating game in crunch time

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens were playing on the road against the Ottawa Senators on April 4 and defenseman P.K. Subban had what could generously be described as a difficult night.

His first two shifts ended in Senators goals, and coach Michel Therrien decided Subban should sit the rest of the period after playing 37 seconds.

Therrien said afterwards that Subban "wasn't ready to start the game" to justify the benching. Though it would be hard to argue with that statement, Therrien's decision was debated ad nauseam on Montreal open line radio shows and on social media for days.

McCarthy: Canadiens should benefit from last change

For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, enlisted the help of longtime NHL assistant/associate coach Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy played in more than 500 NHL games with the Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins, then spent a decade as an assistant and associate coach with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he was a member of the staff that led them to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. He joined the Flyers as an assistant during the 2009-10 season and stayed in Philadelphia until October 2013.

Home-ice advantage has shifted to the Montreal Canadiens in their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Boston Bruins, and Kevin McCarthy feels that might prove to be significant.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien will now have the last change, and if he's smart about it, he could drive Bruins coach Claude Julien up the wall, McCarthy says.

He remembers facing Julien and the Bruins in an Eastern Conference Semifinals series of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Carolina Hurricanes, a series Carolina won in overtime of Game 7.

When the series shifted to Carolina for Game 3, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice took advantage of the last change to the fullest.

McCarthy remembers that Julien wanted to get Bruins captain Zdeno Chara out against Hurricanes captain Eric Staal whenever possible, something he could do easily when playing in Boston. But once on home ice, Maurice would start sending Staal out whenever Chara wasn't on the ice, and then once Chara would change on the fly to come on, Maurice would pull Staal off.

"Claude wants certain players to be out against certain players, probably more than most coaches out there," McCarthy told "I know from experience that if you can force Chara to change on the fly, it can get frustrating."

McCarthy admits that the Canadiens are a bit different than the 2009 Hurricanes in that they don't have one obvious line that the Bruins need to shut down. But Julien did use Chara often against the line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Thomas Vanek in the first two games in Boston, so it could be something Therrien might want to try in Montreal.

"As a coach there are only a certain number of things you can do to impact a game," McCarthy said. "But having the last change gives you one more thing."

The Canadiens will need to take any advantage they can get in the best-of-7 series, because even though it's tied 1-,1 it hasn't really been that close as far as McCarthy is concerned. Montreal has had the clear special-teams advantage, but it's been a different story at even strength, he said.

"If you just take the 5-on-5 play, take everything else out, I think Boston has dominated," McCarthy said. "The [Grade-A] chances they've created at 5-on-5 compared to Montreal is not even in the same hemisphere."

-- Arpon Basu


It was not the first time Subban's ice time was a topic of discussion in Montreal, and it assuredly won't be the last. But we are unlikely to hear anything remotely close to a debate over Subban's play, or how much he plays, at any point in these Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Fast forward a month from that game in Ottawa, and we find ourselves with Subban playing his finest hockey of the season for the Canadiens when it matters most.

His defense partner Josh Gorges was asked Monday what he thinks the main difference in Subban's play has been, and his answer harkens back to that rough outing in Ottawa.

"Focus," Gorges answered with no hesitation. "I think that's why he's been playing extremely well for us; he's focused on our goal. Not his goal, our goal. I think that's why he's been great."

Subban has been the central figure of the Eastern Conference Second Round series between the Canadiens and Boston Bruins, which shifts to Bell Centre for Game 3 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1.

Subban scored two power play goals in Game 1, including the game-winner in double overtime, and had the primary assist on two power-play goals by Thomas Vanek in a 5-3 loss in Game 2. Those four goals represent all of Montreal's power-play production in the series, and Subban has been at the heart of each goal.

After finishing the regular season with five points in his final 14 games, Subban has a team-leading nine points in six playoff games and has been Montreal's best skater by a wide margin.

"He's a determined player, and we've always known that when there's something more on the line he seems to raise and elevate his game," Gorges said. "He's done that in the playoffs and it's because he's really focused on what he has to do to help our team win."

There was a time earlier this season when getting Therrien to publicly compliment Subban for anything was like pulling teeth. Therrien was widely criticized in the media for failing to endorse Subban's candidacy for the Canadian Olympic Team when he was asked, even though he would openly do it for goaltender Carey Price.

Then on March 15, Subban helped cap a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win against the Senators by setting up the game-tying goal by David Desharnais with 0.3 seconds left in regulation, making a pass with the clock winding down when most players would have opted to shoot.

Therrien was asked following the game about the poise displayed by Subban in that situation, and he deflected the question to instead speak about Price.

But these days, Therrien is not the least bit shy about showering praise on Subban.

"For me P.K. Subban, he's such a great kid," Therrien said Monday. "He means a lot to his teammates, and the most important thing is he's a gamer. When they're big games, you want to make sure that a player like that is at his best. Definitely, he's a gamer and he's at his best when it's crunch time like that."

Subban's ability to elevate his play in an amplified environment has been evident throughout his career, right from the time he joined the Canadiens as a rookie during the 2010 playoffs and had eight points in 14 games to help them reach the Eastern Conference Final after playing twice in the regular season.

"Just growing up, [I liked] having success in the biggest games, in the craziest atmospheres, in the craziest buildings, in the biggest games, the biggest moments," Subban said after his overtime winner in Game 1 against Boston. "To me that's how you define yourself and your career, yourself as a player."

Subban also had an opportunity to define himself as a person after he was targeted by a series of racial slurs on Twitter following that game-winning goal. Following the Canadiens' loss in Game 2 on Saturday, Subban showed the same type of poise he showed in making that pass to Desharnais in the final second of regulation, except with a brighter spotlight.

As he's shown the capability to do on the ice, he shined in that spotlight off it too.

Subban's comments on the racial attacks came after a game where he was booed every time he touched the puck and anytime he did anything, as has been the case when he's played in Boston for much of his NHL career.

This series has placed a target on Subban's chest because he is a player who gets under the skin of the Bruins players and their fans in equal measure.

And he welcomes the added attention because he thrives under it.

"I think he's very mature in that aspect," Gorges said. "I think it's something he probably dealt with his entire life, being a superstar player his whole life. I'm sure anywhere he played in a visiting building he always got booed and he always got attention because he is a focal point. He's learned how to handle that really well, and again it comes down to focusing on playing his game."

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