P.K. Subban will have shakier nights in his NHL career, although immediately after a 3--1 road loss to the Maple Leafs last Saturday, he could hardly imagine them. The Canadiens' rookie defenseman was on the ice for all of Toronto's goals, including an empty-netter after his shot from the point was blocked. His face was raked by an unpenalized high stick. He made an egregious giveaway. And the one time he did rush the puck, zigzagging out of Montreal's zone and shifting into third gear at the red line, the preseason Calder Trophy favorite wound up offside, ahead of a play after spending most of the night a step behind.
Normally Subban is no more disheartened by a poor game than a rooster is by a day the sun doesn't shine—he'll be back crowing tomorrow—but after a benching that lasted three games and desultory performances in losses to the Red Wings last Friday and then Toronto, he had found his volume control. "It's been tough just to make a pass," he said quietly. "I've got to find a way to get out of my zone. Right now it's just not happening. The puck's not bouncing my way... . I understand it's a process. It's the NHL. You're not going to get a week ... of not playing hockey and be the same player."
To which the rest of the league might say: good.
For a player as gifted as Subban—Montreal's best rushing defenseman since Larry Robinson 30 years ago, according to Hall of Fame winger Steve Shutt—the three-game timeout was a speed bump over which he eventually will pop a wheelie. But for opponents, his exile to the press boxes high in NHL arenas was a metaphor, because they suspect he looks down his nose at them.
Even out of uniform, performing in Canadien Idle, Subban was omnipresent last week. During an intermission panel on the Canadian sports network TSN, analyst Darren Pang compared Subban with Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and, in a classic Elmer Fudd moment, said that Pietrangelo goes about things "the white way." (Pang quickly apologized.) When Montreal frittered away a five-minute power play against the Senators at home on Dec. 7, Habs fans chanted "P.K!"—and not in praise of Ottawa's penalty kill.
In hockey-obsessed Montreal the irrepressible Subban, 21, has been embraced like no rookie since goalie Patrick Roy a quarter century ago. Fans do not want to shake his hand as much as exchange triple low fives, the exuberant slaps with which Subban and goalie Carey Price celebrate wins. Subban has just two goals in 29 regular-season and 14 playoff games, but he is already the Canadiens' Most Voluble Player.
Subban is a one-man on-ice filibuster. Nothing salacious—"We wouldn't allow that, because it's disrespectful," says veteran Montreal winger Mathieu Darche. No, mostly Subban harangues opponents with a playground you-can't-beat-me braggadocio, which has prompted one NHL assistant to observe, "It's almost like he's an athlete in a different sport."
"Some people take it one way," says Islanders center John Tavares, a friend of Subban's since youth hockey, "and some people take it the other." Which means poorly. Subban's critics think he leveraged a strong playoff month—he was recalled from the minors last spring and quickly became a 20-minute-plus, all-situations defenseman for a team that reached the Eastern Conference final—without genuflecting to the traditions of the game. They think he yaps too much, too soon. At least other players who personify the sound of fingernails on a blackboard—among them Rangers left wing Sean Avery and Stars center Steve Ott (box, page 72)—have had time to amass a body of work. Subban has alienated many NHL players two months into his first regular season.
"There haven't been many young guys who've come in and had the impact I've had," Subban said in an empty Canadiens dressing room on Dec. 3, the day after his benching. "I look at the playoffs, and the reason I made an impact is not because I sat back and watched Sidney Crosby skate around me or let him push me around after the whistle or chirp me or dominate me in the corner. No. It's because I was in his face. I let him know I was coming for him."
"He's a cocky guy," says Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, the 2010 Calder winner. "From what you hear around the league, players don't think he has the respect factor. Young guys have to earn respect. They don't think he's doing [that] by jawing with guys like Crosby."