CANADIENS DEFENSEMAN P.K. Subban doesn't merely play hockey games; he grabs them by the throat. No matter what happens in this series with the Bruins, nobody has been more pivotal in the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs than Subban, who is in the middle of everything—mostly to positive effect but sometimes decidedly not. Through Sunday the reigning Norris Trophy winner led all defensemen in points (12), giveaways per game (1.7) and attention drawn. He has been on the ice for 11 of Montreal's 13 goals and has been the fulcrum on which momentum has tilted. "When he's going, he changes your game," said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "He does so many things."
Subban's game is a stirring combination of speed, power, guile and charisma. In the series-opening 4--3 win over Boston, he netted two power-play goals, the first to start the scoring and the second to win the game in overtime. He often broke down the Bruins' defensive configuration by moving laterally inside the blue line, forcing penalty killers to break their box formation in order to follow him. What would start out as a perfect square often morphed into an irregular quadrilateral as one defender tried to cover for another. Simply put, Boston's PK couldn't solve P.K.
And Subban's best move of the series might have come off the ice, when Twitter was ablaze with racist tweets about him after the first game. Bruins management and players quickly condemned the remarks, but no one was more gracious than Subban, whose younger brother Malcolm is a goalie in the Bruins' organization. P.K. called Boston an "awesome" city with a "great fan base."
In Game 3, Subban showed his savvy. With the Bruins down a goal and pressuring Montreal in the final half-minute, Subban dislodged his net while chasing the puck, which put the brakes on a Boston surge. The Bruins later claimed the sleight of shoulder was deliberate and should have earned them a penalty shot. After the game, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask grudgingly called it a "veteran move."
Even when plays call for caution, Subban might respond with abandon. Most defensemen play the two-on-one by slowly backing up, preventing the pass while forcing the shooter into a difficult angle. But early in the fourth game, Bruins forwards Carl Soderberg and Matt Fraser broke into the Canadiens' zone against Subban. The Montreal backliner surprised everyone by flinging himself at Soderberg and breaking up a pass that could have given Fraser a prime scoring chance.
Yet that same assertiveness can hurt Subban. Critics have panned his boisterous celebrations and his penchant for leaving his position to go for the big hit. His unpredictable play can make a coach wince. Subban was named to the Canadian Olympic team this winter, but Mike Babcock, a coach who prefers discretion to aggression, dressed him for just one game.
In April, Subban was scoreless and --5 over his last six games of the regular season. Habs coach Michel Therrien benched him for a 16-minute stretch against Ottawa on April 4, saying, "I don't believe he was ready to start the game."
In Game 3 against Boston, Subban aimed a bodycheck at Boston's Reilly Smith but instead flattened fellow Canadien Thomas Vanek, who missed the rest of the period. Subban took a two-minute penalty for roughing, but quickly made up for it: After he came out of the penalty box, he took a pass from Lars Eller, outraced Boston's top defensive forward, Patrice Bergeron, and beat Rask with a mesmerizing backhand-forehand deke. It was a goal-of-the-year candidate, with a fist-pumping, sliding-on-one-skate celebration to match. It was Subban at his worst—and his best. "I've gotten older," he said, "but I play the same game."
While Pittsburgh's Jussi Jokinen and L.A.'s Marian Gaborik are enjoying postseason breakthroughs, Subban has hooked the spotlight away from everyone.
No matter what happens against Boston, nobody has been more pivotal in the first two rounds than Subban.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED