Playoff hockey, more than just about anything, is a contest of who can stay calmest amid constant duress and heightened emotions in the Stanley Cup spotlight.
The best players combine coolness with unshakeable confidence. Some add a dash of showmanship and – why not? – cockiness.
P.K. Subban is such a player.
The Montreal Canadiens' defenceman hasn't been quite as spectacular this season as he was through three rounds of the postseason last year, but he remains the linchpin of the Montreal defence, and his self-assurance is undiminished.
"I don't want to be known as a guy who doesn't show up, and when I hear people say things like I'm not playing well or I'm not showing up, personally I take it, well, personally. It makes me want to be better," he said in a quiet, but upbeat Habs locker room late Thursday night. "In my career I've always been a guy who stepped up in the playoffs, and I don't want to hear that, I think it's bull."
In the same conversation, Subban was equally defiant about his club's 3-1 predicament in its second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, insisting firmly the Habs can and will come back.
He even went so far as to say Tampa goalie Ben Bishop, pulled in Game 4, has been "sitting on a horseshoe." That's the sort of provocation that will raise eyebrows, but Subban's done this sort of thing before, notably against Boston last year.
The odds are still very much against the Habs coming back in the series, but it's the sort of us-against-the-world posture some leaders adopt.
The other thing they do is prop up their teammates' confidence.
"It's our job as a [leadership] group to make everyone feel good about themselves," said Max Pacioretty, who on Thursday had his best game in weeks.
Regardless of what happens in Saturday's Game 5 in Montreal – and really, what are the chances Tampa will play a third consecutive bad game? – it's a good sign for the Habs that their key young leaders have stepped up in the club's most desperate circumstance of the season.
"This group last year won three out of four elimination games. … We need to play with that same desperation in the next game," Pacioretty said.
Playoff series are often decided by supporting actors, but in Game 4 at least, the marquee names were the ones who shone. Subban, a player who fuels up on personal slights and opposing fans' jeers, turned in perhaps his finest game of the postseason.
Then there's goalie Carey Price, who came up with all the necessary stops when Thursday's game was still close – a tricky pad save on Nikita Kucherov in the second period was the pick of the lot. Price stole a key game in Round 1 against Ottawa, and the Lightning should fear a repeat of that at the Bell Centre.
Fans have been waiting for Pacioretty – who was slowed by a concussion late in the season – to assert himself, and he did that to dramatic effect in Game 4.
When Pacioretty is in full flight – this often happens when he's playing angry – he is a formidable offensive force. He's been checked closely in this series, but there was no stopping him Thursday – within three minutes of the puck drop he was winning a foot-race and setting up a crucial early goal.
With playoff opponents game-planning against Subban's trademark rushes and power-play point shot, his offensive output hasn't been up to his usual standard. But he has demonstrated maturity in his defensive game, looking out for a lagging Markov, who used to be the responsible adult in their partnership.
The 25-year-old Norris Trophy nominee still leads the Habs in scoring, and Subban has made a raft of vital defensive plays against the Lightning – sniper Steven Stamkos has now gone two games without recording a shot thanks largely to Subban's attentions.
He's also Montreal's ice-time leader (only Chicago's Duncan Keith has played more in these playoffs), and were it not for a couple of posts getting in the way, Subban would be leading all blueliners in goals.
But Subban and all three Habs associate captains were on the ice for the Bolts' last-gasp winner in Game 3, and that goal evidently didn't sit well with anyone involved. The five Montreal players involved in the play combined for eight points the following night. It was a timely showing from the players most responsible for the Habs' success this season.
"I've never lost my confidence in this group. We've never played like a team that should be down 3-0," coach Michel Therrien said Friday.
Now they're down 3-1, and looking to get to a sixth game. If they avoid stave off elimination again, there's every likelihood it will be because of Subban, Pacioretty and Price.