The Montreal Canadiens were in town on Wednesday, but not before the arrival of the Subban Circus.
A massive scrum greeted the Canadiens’ prodigal defenceman at Scotiabank Place on the morning of the game against the Ottawa Senators. One could only imagine the excitement if P.K. Subban were actually suiting up for the night’s action.
Instead, the newly re-signed defenceman skated with two other non-starters, Yannick Weber and Mike Blunden, then hit the right notes about rejoining his team, whenever it needs him, at your service, etc.
And that’s where it gets interesting.
One of hockey’s unwritten credos: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Coaches never like to tinker with a winning formula. Have a hot goalie? Don’t let him cool. A rookie jumps in and contributes to a win, he stays in.
Senators head coach Paul MacLean joked about forward Mika Zibanejad’s stellar season debut in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals: “When you’re first star, you get to play again.”
Zibanejad did play versus Montreal, while top centre Jason Spezza did NOT play for a second straight game, leading to speculation his “upper body” injury may be more serious than first thought. And the rash is spreading — veteran defenceman Sergei Gonchar also missed Wednesday’s game with a lower body injury.
Which brings us back to Subban, the defenceman who ended his contract holdout Monday when he agreed to a two-year, $5.75-million deal. That didn’t get Subban into Tuesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, nor did head coach Michel Therrien use him in Ottawa.
How soon does he play? Nobody with the Canadiens will say just yet. While he’s perfectly healthy, and claims to be fit and ready to go, Subban was AWOL for the first 10 days of the season as his Montreal teammates did the heavy lifting during an inspiring 4-1-0 start through their first five games.
No wonder reporters who ventured into the Canadiens room after the announcement found the temperature a bit chilly when the topic was raised.
The first thing Subban has to do is find a comfort level in that room again. It might also help if he doesn’t try to put on a show in front of the cameras right away.
Subban said he has no doubt he will receive a positive reception from his teammates. By Wednesday, he had only spoken directly to a couple of players, not wanting to interrupt the team routine during back-to-back games.
They might love Subban’s act at the Bell Centre, where he has been a provocative presence, and sometimes a star performer, for hockey’s most storied franchise. However, as a 23-year-old in a league that respects its elders, Subban has at times rubbed both teammates and rivals the wrong way.
The latest chapter: A Subban sideshow at the outset of a compressed season, when teams are in early playoff run mode and the Canadiens are sorting out a new system, with a new general manager in Marc Bergevin and new head coach in Therrien.
That they have played remarkably well without Subban has not escaped his attention.
“You look at this team compared to last year, it’s completely different,” Subban said, warming up for what may have been a shot at last year’s edition of the Canadiens: “It’s an actual team out there.”
Subban said he just wants to return and be a part of it, “contribute any way I can.”
Asked about assuming his former position on the power play (which, with the return of Andrei Markov is one of the league’s best in the early season), Subban wisely deferred to the GM and coach to make those kinds of determinations.
In the first period against the Senators, Markov helped set up another power play goal for the Canadiens, by Tomas Plekanec, although Ottawa’s penalty kill stepped up afterward, and so did the power play. Daniel Alfredsson and Zibanejad both scored second period goals with the man advantage to take control of Wednesday’s game.
Before the game, Therrien told reporters that while Subban seems to be in shape, “we need to see him in practice with the team” before deciding when he will play, he said. The Canadiens are at home to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday before facing the Senators again on Sunday afternoon at the Bell Centre.
This loss to Ottawa might give Therrien the opening to play Subban sooner rather than later.
“I felt great today,” Subban said. “I’m going to continue to practice. As of right now, there is no time frame for when I’m returning. It’s not my decision.”
Humility is not the kid’s long suit, but the flamboyant Subban toned it down during his media availability here, said all the right things about returning to the fold in the right way.
The next challenge will be blending in on the ice, after having gone nearly 11 months between games.
“It’s that edge, getting back into a game,” Subban said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you skate, you’ve got to get in a game, feel the bumps and bangs … get into altercations, feel the game again.
“That takes time,” said Subban. “But I’ve prepared myself as best I could.”