BROSSARD, Que. – If there was one Montreal Canadien who got under the Boston Bruins’ skin this season, it was P.K. Subban.
So the rookie defenceman, who is chatty both on and off the ice, will be a likely target for the Bruins when they bring their physical style to the 33rd post-season matchup between the Original Six clubs.
Game 1 is set for Tuesday night at TD Garden in Boston (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
“He’s one of our best players so I assume he would be (a target),” Subban’s veteran defence partner Hal Gill said. “I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t.
“You go after their best players, they’re going to go after ours. That’s the name of the game. That’s the playoffs. That’s why it’s fun.”
The Canadiens held a short skate at their practice facility Wednesday morning before flying to Boston to begin what is being billed as a grudge series after some nasty incidents in the regular season.
They include a fight-filled 8-6 Boston win, a 4-1 Canadiens victory where which Habs winger Max Pacioretty was sent to hospital with a concussion and a fractured vertebra, and a 7-0 Bruins triumph that all-but ended the battle first place in the division.
Subban was a central figure in much of it, as he and Gill tried to hold off the Bruins’ top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and the rugged Milan Lucic.
The statistics suggest the Lucic line came out on top, combining for 23 points in six meetings. But 18 of those came in the Bruins’ two victories as Montreal won the season series 4-2-0.
The six-foot-three, 230-pound Lucic and six-foot-two, 230-pound Horton will be looking to crowd Carey Price’s crease again in the post-season, sparking more battles with Subban.
“He’s a big body,” Subban said of Lucic. “They’re probably one of the best lines in the NHL and they’re going to be hard to contain.
“They’re one of those lines where you can’t engage them fully. You have to play well positionally against them. It’s going to be a challenge not just for me and Hal but for all five guys on the ice.”
If the Bruins have it in for Subban, Price is confident the teammate he exchanges low-fives with after wins will be ready.
“I don’t think it affects him at all—I think he actually enjoys it,” said Price. “I don’t think P.K. cares what anybody thinks.
“We all know what he brings—a lot of enthusiasm. And he doesn’t let a whole lot get him down. He plays with a lot of fire. We have no worries about it.”
The Bruins are widely seen as favourites after finishing seven points ahead of Montreal during the regular season, particularly after chasing Price in the Canadiens’ last two visits to Boston.
But the Habs controlled the victory between those two defeats in Montreal and are 9-3 over the past two seasons against the Bruins.
The goaltending is close between Price and veteran Tim Thomas, who has his own history of troubles with Montreal. The Canadiens also look to have more depth on defence, although without a dominant individual like the six-foot-nine Zdeno Chara.
Boston has more scoring punch up front and had 30 more goals than Montreal this season, but the Canadiens had a clear advantage on both the power play and penalty kill.
Add to that, the Canadiens have more playoff experience, including five players who have won the Stanley Cup—Gill, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Travis Moen and Brent Sopel. The Bruins have Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton.
The Canadiens also picked up valuable experience last spring when they upset Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the Eastern Conference final, while the Bruins are under pressure to atone for last year’s playoffs. They were ousted in the second round after blowing a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 to Philadelphia.
There are reports that Bruins coach Claude Julien will be fired if they lose to the Habs this time around.
Boston will look to counter the Canadiens strong positional play and quick movement and impose their own physical, defensive game.
“It’s a different style of play and that’s exciting,” said Gill. “For us to have success we have to do what we do well—that’s have close puck support, moving the puck, making smart decisions, being disciplined.
“When we play well, you can see those things click. If we can do all those things we’ll be successful and if we don’t, they’ll beat us up.”
It was during last year’s playoffs that Subban was called up from Hamilton of the AHL to fill in when No. 1 defenceman Andrei Markov injured a knee in the first round. In 14 games, he had a goal and seven assists and averaged 20:44 of ice time.
Making the team full-time out of training camp was a formality, and Subban improved over the season to the point where he has not only replaced Markov’s name on the roster, he may even have taken his role as the No. 1 defenceman.
In 77 games this season, the Toronto native had 14 goals and 24 assists and played 22:16 per game. He’s on the first power play and penalty killing units and plays with Gill against the opponent’s top forward lines.
“Maybe my rookie season is over but I’m still a young guy,” said Subban. “I still have a lot to learn. I’ve played a lot of hockey in the NHL at this point, but you have to keep everything in perspective. I’m not Andrei Markov. I’m my own player. But you have to keep focused on improving.”
Notes: Montreal forward Jeff Halpern, who missed eight of the final 12 regular season games, skated with his teammates in a no-contact jersey and will make the trip to Boston but won’t play in the opener. … Pacioretty, who is not close to returning, skated separately with Markov, who is gone for the season with his second major knee injury in a year. … The Bruins have opted to go to Lake Placid, N.Y. for the two off-days between Games 3 and 4 in Montreal.