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The Globe and Mail

P.K. Subban ‘starting to scratch the surface’

Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban has a laugh during the team's practice Wednesday, May 1, 2013 in Brossard, Que. Subban, Pittsburgh Penguins Kris Letang and Minnesota Wild's Ryan Suter have been named finalists for the James Norris Memorial Trophy, given annually to the top defenceman in the NHL.


The noted philosopher Reggie Jackson captured it best: "Fans don't boo nobodies."

So it was that it took about four minutes on the game clock for Scotiabank Place to break into its first lusty refrain of "Sub-ban sucks" – although in fairness they had jeered Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban from the time he hopped on the ice in the opening minute of Game 4 against the Ottawa Senators, and every time he touched the puck thereafter.

It reached a crescendo with three minutes to play in the first period, when Subban took a healthy run at centre Zack Smith at his own blueline, narrowly missing a highlight-reel hit and spinning to the ice to the evident delight of the home fans.

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There were somewhat less chuffed 2 minutes 52 seconds into the second, when Tomas Plekanec scooted around a pinching Erik Karlsson to create an odd-man opportunity.

Subban, as is his wont, leaped into the rush, ghosting in behind Michael Ryder and tapping his stick on the ice – haters will take note of the breach in etiquette – before accepting Plekanec's sublime pass and ripping a perfect wrist shot into the top corner on goalie Craig Anderson's stick side.

The goal celebration was odd in it took place before a mostly silent crowd (Subban pulled out the archer move, and screeched to a stop to pound the glass where a woman in a Habs shirt jumped up and down).

So we can conclusively establish Subban is a somebody.

That's why Smith took a flailing left hand at him during the first shift they played against each other – Smith evidently having been designated as the primary dispenser of abuse on the mercurial 23-year-old defenceman.

It was a typical enough welcome for the Toronto native, who was named as one of the three finalists for the James Norris Memorial Trophy awarded to the NHL's best defenceman on Tuesday.

He is up against Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild.

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Montreal coach Michel Therrien observed before Game 4 of the series pitting the Sens and Habs that it's a richly deserved honour, if only because of the way Subban has gone from being a talented, easily-distracted player to a dominant one in the past five months.

"He's a lot more reliable than he was in past years," he said.

That may sound like faint praise, but in hockey-speak, it's a considerable compliment.

It's natural to point to Subban's offensive ability and skating – he co-led the league in scoring by defencemen – but it's in his own end of the ice that he's become a force to be reckoned with.

Therrien sees a new maturity in Subban, both in his game and his demeanour off the ice, where the telegenic defenceman has stubbornly refused to talk about himself this season.

Indeed, on one of the biggest days of his young professional career, Subban refused to discuss his Norris nod – preferring to do his talking on the ice.

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"Sorry guys, I have a game to prepare for," he said.

It was left to teammate and frequent defensive partner Josh Gorges to do the talking as Subban sat nearby taking off his equipment – "Earmuffs," Gorges joked, in reference to being within earshot of his younger teammate.

Much is made of Subban's flamboyance and inexhaustible well of exuberance – it's worth watching him bounce around on his skates during the pregame anthems – but he also has a mischievous streak, which he showed by slamming the lid of his locker shut as Gorges heaped compliments on him.

The thing that impresses Gorges most: Subban's ability to skate the puck out of trouble, even with a fore-checker draped on his back..

"It's pretty amazing what he can do on his feet, his edges, and the strength he has to use that momentum to propel himself out," he said.

Gorges noted Subban is far from the finished article ("he's just starting to scratch the surface of what his potential is.")

So there's a cheery thought for Subban's detractors – who contend he is a polarizing figure in the dressing room but never provide direct evidence – he's only going to get better.

In the meantime, they'll have to content themselves with booing him loudly for every misstep, like the penalty he took to negate a power-play late in the second Tuesday.

The Senators would be unable to capitalize, however.

It's been that kind of year for Subban; even mistakes work out in the end.

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