Lightning rods are great – until you’re paid to stand next to one.
Some athletes carry their own personal tempests into opposing arenas. P.K. Subban, for example. When the Montreal Canadiens’ defenceman intersects with the good people of Boston, things tend to get very electric indeed.
All Subban needs to inspire instant, frothy hatred from the Bruins and their fans is to step off the bus. It’s a skill.
And to the guys who line up beside the 24-year-old, it’s also highly amusing.
“It’s the swagger he plays with,” said Montreal winger Brandon Prust, who has also been known to rile an adversary or two. “He’s being a pest out there and chirping … then he’ll come out and tee one up top-shelf on you. He’ll hit you hard; he’ll take a run at you. I think what frustrates people is he’s so good.”
“You see his personality. He doesn’t care at all. He frustrates other teams, for sure,” said Habs captain Brian Gionta.
However, Gionta added, “there’s a fine line between frustrating and motivating. When he handles it the right way, it frustrates them. When he doesn’t, it motivates them.”
Therein lies the challenge: recognizing the tipping point.
And Subban, who has been accused of grievous sins against hockey by Boston’s fans, players and coaches – for diving, notably – is aware of the feelings he stirs, even if he doesn’t spend much time analyzing them.
“People are going to break down games, and talk about guys getting under each other’s skin. I don’t consider that any part of my game. I just consider playing well being the biggest way of agitating … putting the puck in the net, playing physical, having an impact on the game,” Subban said. “That seems to piss everybody off a lot more than talking or chirping.”
Fans at the TD Garden, where the second-round series will begin later this week, still recall the late goal he scored to tie game seven of the epic first-round series between the teams in 2011.
Asked whether he’s ever seen a player inspire such visceral fury, Prust chuckled and said, “Well, I played with Sean Avery, so …”
Where the notoriously abrasive Avery was “lippy – he’d make fun of your mom or something and stick you in the [groin],” Prust said Subban does his most lasting damage with skill and daring.
“For the series, I think they’re going to try and keep it under control and not let him get under their skin, but I think that’s hard to do with him,” Prust said. “I know when I was playing for the Rangers … you always wanted to try and get a piece of him.”
In 27 career games against Boston, including regular season and playoffs, Subban has registered 16 points. He has also racked up 37 penalty minutes, although the last time the two teams played in the postseason, he had just one minor penalty in seven games.
Subban’s smarts are perhaps his underestimated quality. And growing up a Habs fan, he also understands the rivalry intuitively.
“When [ex-Hab Alexei] Kovalev went short side for the OT winner [to eliminate Boston in 2008], that was my favourite. I was watching that at home … it would be nothing short of special to be able to be that player, to put your team over the top,” he said.
The swashbuckling blueliner tied for the team lead in points in the first playoff round against Tampa Bay, but in addition to his scoring feats, he leads the team in ice time at even strength, and in the first round he and partner Josh Gorges drove the Habs’ puck possession, generating far more shots than they allowed.
Against Boston, the pair will split the assignment against Boston’s top forward threats – including Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic, no slouches in the getting-booed department – with fellow defenders Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin.
As the focus of Boston fans’ boos, Subban will doubtless spend some time in the spotlight. And history suggests his skill and knack for rising to grand occasions will have a big impact on deciding who moves on to the conference final.