MONTREAL – The generation gap between rookie P.K. Subban and 35-year-old Hal Gill looks to be closing not only in their attitudes toward victory celebrations but also in their play on the ice.
The 22-year-old Subban, perhaps the flashiest player on the Montreal Canadiens, is drawing praise from coach Jacques Martin for his defensive play, while Gill is reluctantly learning to accept the “low fives” Subban exchanges with goaltender Carey Price after wins and other unreserved displays of emotion.
“When I first came into the league those things wouldn’t happen,” said Gill. “It was frowned upon.
“But the way the game is now, its a different game, different atmosphere. The old goats like me can’t sit in the past and try to deny it, as much as we’d like to. It’s a fun thing and it’s entertaining and obviously people like it so I guess we have to let it go.”
Old goats may still bleat when Linus Omark does a spin move during a shootout or when Alex Ovechkin pretends his stick is on fire, but the trend doesn’t look like it will fade away any time soon.
And it only really works when the player backs it up with strong performances, as Subban has shown of late since injuries forced a shuffling of defence pairs and threw Subban and Gill together as the team’s top duo.
With first Andrei Markov and more recently Josh Gorges gone for the season with torn ACL ligaments, two of the club’s top four defencemen are out and the rest will all have to put in extra minutes and play a little better to maintain the Canadiens precarious hold on an NHL Eastern Conference playoff spot through the second half of the season.
They may be the odd couple, with the rangy Gill’s stay-at-home, conservative style contrasting with Subban’s energetic, offence-oriented dash, but Martin called them his best pairing in a shootout win this week over Pittsburgh.
“It was probably (Subban’s) best game this year against Pittsburgh,” said Martin. “I thought both him and Hal played very well.
“Hal’s got a lot of experience and he’s got a good relation with P.K. With a young defenceman, it’s important to have that stability. He came up last year and he played well defensively in the playoffs and had a good start this year. He’s capable of it when he keeps his game simple.”
Subban’s had ups and downs in his first full NHL season, showing flashes of the speed and derring-do that made him an instant fan favourite at the Bell Centre, but also making some defensive blunders that caused him to be banished to the pressbox twice, once for three games, then for two.
The goal, it appears, is not to stifle his offensive instincts or personality, but to make sure he takes care of the defensive side of the game first.
“He’s been pretty steady the last few games and, for him, that’s big,” said Gill. “He’s a guy that we want to keep going.
“We want him to be aggressive, we want him to do the things that got him here and that he does well. But along the way, we want to get him to keep learning the little defensive tricks. We talk to him on the bench and between periods and after games. And he helps me out. When he’s got that energy, he gets me going. So we kind of feed off each other, which is nice.”
Playing with Gill is a jump in responsibility for Subban, as it usually means facing the opponents’ top line and spending a lot of time on the ice. Against Pittsburgh, it was 24:52 and he hasn’t been under 20 minutes since he returned Dec. 28 from his latest benching.
“It changes for everybody, not just me,” Subban said of the defence corps’ injury woes. “Everyone’s got to pick up the slack.”
They are two of the chattiest players on the team, but Subban has learned he has to be even more vocal.
“(Gill) gets on my case about not talking enough out there,” he said. “Sometimes he’s telling me ‘let me know where you’re at and I’ll react from there.’ To be successful you have to be vocal. Players know how to fall asleep on the ice and sneak in behind you and find those sleeper spots in the slot. That’s how they create scoring chances. If you’re not talking out there, you’ll be out there for goals against. So it’s fun to play with Hal, for sure.”
Through the first half of the season, Subban had three goals and nine assists, but was minus-3 in 36 games. He would no doubt like to improve at both ends of the ice.
“That’s what got me here—notjust my offence, but my ability to play both ways,” he said. “In junior and the NHL I was always a good plus player and I always played at both ends of the rink.
“When I’m not playing well defensively, (Martin’s) not happy. But personally, as a player, I can say that when I feel the most confident out there is when I’m making those solid passes out of my zone and winning the battles down low and competing against their top players. Its not when I’m in the offensive zone creating stuff. It’s when I’m in my D-zone and I know I can shut them down.”