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P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens had an impressive season. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) (Francois Lacasse/2010 NHLI)
P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens had an impressive season. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) (Francois Lacasse/2010 NHLI)

SEAN GORDON

Habs student Subban acing his tests so far Add to ...

If the hockey thing hadn't panned out he'd likely have become a math teacher, which helps explain why the big man likes to get his pedagogy on.

To hear Carey Price tell it - and the Montreal Canadiens goalie has the best perspective from which to notice such things - defenceman Hal Gill delivers a running coaching clinic from his side of the ice.

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"He's like Reggie Dunlop," Price joked recently, comparing the towering 36-year-old Gill to the crusty mischief merchant the late Paul Newman played in Slapshot.

"[Gill]is pretty much another coach out there … and then you've got P.K. doing his thing over on the other side," Price smiled.

Ah yes, young Mr. Subban.

Every instructor needs a student, and the irrepressible, high-energy 21-year-old rookie is the Plato to Gill's Socrates (both would surely scoff at the comparison).

While much of the focus heading into the playoffs will be on Price and his spotty record in Boston, and the questions that surround the Habs' goal-scoring, Montreal's playoff success will greatly depend on the team's defensive corps - led by the top pairing, Messrs. Gill and Subban.

In the playoffs, where special teams are king - just ask the 2009-10 Washington Capitals - Gill and Subban are the linchpins of a penalty kill that is among the NHL's elite; the Habs were short-handed more times than any other team in the league this past season, but still conserved the second-best road four-on-five on the circuit and were seventh overall.

The Habs are also one of only three playoff teams to boast both a top-10 power-play and penalty kill, Vancouver and Tampa being the others.

It's a stat that could take on a disproportionate importance in a match-up that pits two of the league's best five-on-five defensive teams - the Boston Bruins gave up the fewest five-on-five goals in the NHL this season, Montreal fourth-fewest.

Statistically, Gill and Subban, who are on the Habs' top penalty-killing unit, are both among the NHL's top-15 defencemen while a man short (Montreal gives up almost twice as many power-play goals per 60 minutes when another pair is on the ice, according to statistics site behindthenet.ca).

If the Canadiens play anything like they did in a playoff run that took them to an unexpected berth in the conference final a year ago, stingy defence and strong penalty killing will be crucial, and that's where the Habs' resident odd couple comes in.

The two couldn't be more different both on or off the ice, but since coach Jacques Martin put him under Gill's tutelage in December - and tutor, Gill does - Subban has bloomed as the team's top defenceman.

In addition to playing a shut-down role against the opposition's best players, Subban has scored more goals since Jan. 1 than any other blue-liner in the league (12).

"Playing with Hal's been great, he's been a role model for me all season, he's helped me tremendously in terms of keeping my focus," Subban said last week.

The 36-year-old Gill was flummoxed when asked about channelling Dunlop ("I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, how do I handle that one?" he said), but the master acknowledged he has also learned a few things from the pupil.

"How to celebrate, I guess," Gill said. "He doesn't mess around with that."

There has been much celebrating since Subban re-joined James Wisniewski on the top power-play unit five games ago - the Habs have scored six power-play goals in 15 opportunities, Subban has three of them.

So if Price, who has a 4-7 playoff record against Boston, can replicate his magnificent regular-season form and the Habs' defence can hold it together - Jaroslav Spacek's return from injury won't hurt - Montreal may be able to bring its greater playoff experience and edge in Stanley Cup rings to bear against a more fancied opponent.

Plus, the Habs have the weight of history on their side. Montreal has a 24-8 advantage in postseason meetings between the teams, and has won nine of the last 12 regular-season games.

The bad news: the Bruins won the last two dates in Boson, where the series opens, by a combined score of 15-6.

But as Habs captain Brian Gionta said after Saturday's finale in Toronto, "the regular season's kind of thrown out."

 

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