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Canadiens' Subban thrives in villain role

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- P.K. Subban doesn't understand where it comes from, but he's not complaining.

Almost every time the Montreal Canadiens defenseman plays in a visiting NHL rink he is booed, a phenomenon that grows in intensity during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

And Subban thrives on it.

Except if you ask him about the booing, Subban acts like an innocent victim.

An innocent, perfectly willing victim.

"We always use Boston because we have the most games against them in the playoffs, but I didn't go there and ask them to boo me," Subban said. "I didn't ask them to do that. They started doing that. I didn't ask them to hate me."

When asked if he feeds off that booing to raise his game, something Subban has shown a consistent ability to do in the playoffs during his career, he plays coy.

"I'm not saying that I do. I'm not saying that I don't," he said with a grin. "But I don't ask them to do that. When I go to Winnipeg, I don't ask them to boo me. Philly, it's the same thing. Pittsburgh, Toronto. I'm from Toronto; they still boo me.

"For me, the playoffs are not about everybody else. It's about the guys in here [the Canadiens dressing room]. So already, the way I see it, it's us against everybody else. That's what it is. That's what the playoffs are."

Subban knows well what the playoffs are because it's where his NHL career practically was born.

He had been called up for two regular-season games for the Canadiens in 2009-10 and returned to Montreal to play in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals as an injury replacement.

The Canadiens were down 3-2 in the series but won Game 6 and Game 7 in Washington advance to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

In Game 1, Andrei Markov injured his knee when he was hit by Matt Cooke. Just like that, a week shy of his 21st birthday, Subban became a very important player for the Canadiens.

"So I'm walking in there and they're looking at me and saying, 'Go play 25 minutes a game against … Sidney Crosby,'" Subban said. "And I'm like, 'OK, fine. I'm just going to go play.'"

Subban played at least 20 minutes in the final six games of the series, including a game high 29:11 in a 4-3 win in Game 6, and then had an assist in 23:01 of ice time in a 5-2 win in Game 7 to help Montreal reach the Eastern Conference Final.

Jaroslav Halak and Mike Cammalleri are remembered as the heroes of that unlikely playoff run in 2010, but it also was the birth of one of the top playoff performers in the NHL.

"I feel that the Montreal Canadiens have made me a part of this franchise because of my ability to make a difference in those types of games," Subban said. "To me, that's how I want to define my career, is making a difference in big games."

At age 25, Subban already has played in a lot of big games.

In 43 NHL playoff games, he has 10 goals and 20 assists. That's a 0.70 points-per-game average, a 12.9-percent increase from his career regular-season scoring average (0.63 points per game). Some of that increased production comes from playing more minutes, and some of it is a result of receiving a bit of a longer leash from Canadiens coach Michel Therrien to use the dynamic offensive skills that make Subban such a special defenseman.

Subban's relationship with Therrien, particularly when it comes to using those skills, has been a source of constant over-analysis among Montreal fans and media.

Last season the Canadiens showed an animated Therrien ripping into Subban during the intermission of a game on their own television show, "24CH." That tiny window into the life of player and coach created an impression that Subban and Therrien had a strained relationship.

Not so, Subban says.

"Michel and the coaching staff and especially [general manager Marc Bergevin], they've helped me so much," Subban said. "The amount of meetings that I've had with them, and it's strictly about making me a better player. For people that say, 'He's not helping P.K.,' I'm saying it's his job to win, so obviously he wants to see me do well. Every coach has a different style and his is different from everybody else's. But that doesn't mean that it's bad.

"This is the best hockey that I'm playing in my career and he's a big part of it and so is [Bergevin]."

The appreciation is mutual.

There was a time when Therrien was reluctant to publicly compliment Subban, even taking considerable heat for his refusal to endorse Subban's candidacy for Canada in the 2014 Sochi Olympics until a few weeks before the team was announced.

That's no longer the case.

"It's not for me to comment on what people are saying because I don't know what they're saying," Therrien said. "But one thing I can say is that this is a young player and if you look at his last three years he got better and better and better. This is the most important thing for me."

Subban said that even though people think Therrien is holding him back, Subban established career highs in goals and points this season. The constant discourse that surrounds him is a part of Subban's daily life. An active user of social media, Subban is aware of what people are saying about him.

But not too aware.

"A lot of it I don't digest; digesting it could be bad for your stomach," Subban said. "But I think this year people are talking about me a lot less, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. And it's weird because this is probably the best year that I've had. I don't know. Maybe there's irony to that."

So if people are indeed talking about Subban less, maybe this will be the year he stops getting booed on the road in the playoffs, though that is extremely unlikely.

It would be a strange feeling for Subban, because that booing has almost become a part of his personality; the ultimate road villain that Montreal’s opponents and their fans love to hate.

It's a role Subban loves to play, even if he won't admit it.

Instead he laughs and says, "Let's just say it doesn't bother me."

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