MONTREAL – There was a new man sitting in front of injured defenceman Andrei Markov’s dressing room stall Thursday—rookie P.K. Subban.
Coach Jacques Martin said there was no significance regarding Subban’s move to a prime spot at the end of the row of veteran defencemen, but the symbolism was evident.
With Markov out six months after knee surgery, the gifted Subban has become the team’s go-to defenceman for moving the puck up the ice and playing the point on the first power-play unit.
”It doesn’t really matter to me where they put me (in the dressing room), I’m just getting ready to play,” the 21-year-old said as the team prepared to face the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference final.
It was odd that Subban was among the last players to leave the ice at the team’s game-day skate. Only those not in the starting lineup usually do that. But Subban said he was “just working on some things.”
The Canadiens announced Wednesday that Markov, who was injured in the opening game of the second round of playoffs against Pittsburgh, underwent surgery for a torn ACL ligament in his right knee. He had tried skating with a brace in hope of returning, but couldn’t manage and opted for surgery that may keep him out for the first two months of next season.
It is unknown if the injury will have an effect on talks for a contract extension for the 31-year-old, who has one year remaining on a four-year deal worth US$5.75-million per season.
For now, his stall has been given over the quick-footed Subban, whose NHL experience going into Game 3 was two regular-season and 11 playoff games. The Toronto native was called up for the final two games of Montreal’s first-round win over Washington and quickly won over the Bell Centre crowd with his flashy style and mostly solid play. Subban No. 76 shirts and jerseys have become hot sellers at the arena’s kiosks.
“Having the support of the fans is great, but it’s not just me, it’s the team,” he said. ”Everyone supports the team.
”I have no control over what the fans do or what the media says, I just do what I can. I just go out and play hockey and try to have a smile on face while I do it and enjoy it.”
It was a rare game-day that Subban spoke to the media. Knowing how popular he has become and how openly he speaks, the Canadiens carefully manage his availability, perhaps to help him adjust to the far brighter spotlight in the NHL compared to Hamilton of the American Hockey League where he spent most of the season.
And he has tempered his speech. Instead of his usually refreshing off-the-cuff answers to questions, he spoke more of the team and how it need to work hard and win battles to beat the Flyers.
“Not very many guys get that opportunity to be in the conference final and compete for an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup,” said the Canadiens’ ’07 second-round draft pick. “Right now, the focus is on the team, not so much on me.
”It’s about us and what we need to do. And I think, in the long run, it’s better off if that’s where my focus is. All 22 guys here are focused on winning and moving on.”
The opening game against the Flyers, a 6-0 loss in Philadelphia, was Subban’s toughest since he was called up. He was minus-3 for the night, although his plus-minus is an even zero for the playoffs.
His puck-carrying ability has been a bonus with Markov out. But Subban has made few of the rink-length rushes that were his trademark in junior hockey, particularly at the world junior championships where he twice helped Canada win gold.
The frequent spinning moves are still there, however.
”The coaches want us all to stick to the game plan and do what will help us win,” he said. ”But you can’t be out there afraid to make mistakes.
”You’ve got to play your game. We all have a job to do and we have to focus on that. Right now, I just try to do what’s there. If there’s room to skate, I have to skate it out. If there’s a guy open, I’ve got to move it. It’s a simple game. I don’t try to complicate things. I have to play within myself and play with what they give me.”