P.K. Subban, happily trolling Penguins' stars on and off ice

NASHVILLE – P.K. Subban knows the game. The one that isn’t played on ice, but in front of the microphones and cameras in the playoffs.

And the game goes like this: P.K. Subban and Sidney Crosby trash-talk each other leaving the ice after Game 3, the two biggest stars in the Stanley Cup Final going at it. Pierre McGuire of NBCSN asks Subban what was said and Subban, who obviously isn’t going to relay the dialogue verbatim, tells McGuire that Crosby was mocking his bad breath, which was a comical reference to McGuire’s “how’s your breath?” moment with Phil Kessel of the Penguins last season.

The game continues outside the Predators’ dressing room, as a gaggle of reporters surround Subban and a venerable columnist for a large Canadian paper asks him about Crosby. “Usually when guys chirp after the game or during the game, it’s usually about your game or something personal. He went on to tell me that my breath smelled bad, and I really don’t understand why, because I use Listerine before the game,” said Subban.

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Now the game is on. The “breath” thing goes viral, and boomerangs around to practice the following day, when Subban is asked about it again. “Hey, you can’t be perfect. There are some things I have to work on, I guess,” he said of his allegedly dank breath.

But to win the game, your nonsense needs to seep through the opposing locker room door. Which means that Sidney Crosby, the day after losing a Stanley Cup Final game and the day before another one, would have to be asked about P.K. Subban’s breath.

“Are you guys gonna ask him that?” asked Subban, feigning surprise. “Well, it’ll be interesting to see if he says what he said last night.”

And so the media carries this story over and we infect the Penguins’ room like mosquitos, asking Crosby about the incident.

“Yeah, he made that up. I didn’t say that,” Crosby said, wishing to answer literally anything else at this moment. “He likes the attention.”

***

This is the second time Subban’s played “The Game” in the Stanley Cup Final. The first was his guarantee to win Game 3 after the Predators lost the first two games. It was a vow he reinforced in the following two days as well, and a vow that, again, made its way into the Q&As with Penguins players.

As Crosby said, he likes the attention, and in that case he liked focusing that attention on what Subban believed should be the story coming out of Game 2: We’re better than them when we play a full 60 minutes, and we’ll beat them in Game 3.

After Game 3, Subban punted when asked for his Game 4 prediction, because that’s not the story he wants to tell anymore. Now, it’s about how the Penguins were frustrated to the point where Crosby was jawing with Subban, and so we get the Listerine fabrication.

The breath thing was a lie, but here’s the truth: P.K. Subban is really good at the troll thing.

“The gamesmanship’s awesome. That’s what you love, and that’s what you probably miss the most when you’re finished playing. For those battles. For that game within a game,” he said.

His gamesmanship has been elevated and amplified with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin across the ice.

“I love it. Love it. You want to play against the world’s best players, and he’s the world’s best player. It’s always fun to play against those guys,” said Subban of Crosby.

Subban has been feistier and more pest-like in this series than in the previous three rounds. His only fight of the playoffs, such as it was, came near the end of Game 2 against the other target of his aggression, Malkin.

“It’s hockey. You gotta play the game. In a 60-minute game, everybody has their one-on-one battles, and you have to win the battle against the guy across from you. When you do that consistently, you’re going to win the big battle, which is the game,” said Subban.

Subban and Mattias Ekholm have consistently been the Predators’ top shutdown duo in these playoffs, and in the process Subban’s status as a shutdown defenseman himself has been considered.

As far back as 2012, Subban was being praised for adapting to that role with the Montreal Canadiens, and it’s no coincidence this was around the time of his first and only Norris Trophy victory.

But an odd thing happened in the ensuring seasons. Perhaps it’s the inherent bias the hockey world has against most “flashy” defenseman who put up points. Perhaps it was a the amplified voices of his critics in the Montreal media. Mike Babcock’s assessment of Subban in discussing the “trustworthiness” of defensemen didn’t help in 2014, even though Subban eventually made the Canadian Olympic team.

But then the Predators began this Stanley Cup ride, and results were deniable. Here was a 200-foot defenseman, helping to stifle some of the best offensive players in the postseason while countering with his own offense.

“Whether it’s Crosby or Malkin or Getzlaf or Toews, you’re talking about some of the better players in the game. You have to play good defense. As much as, you know, we sit here and talk about attack all the time, look to create,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette. “I just think that P.K. and Eky, all of our defensemen, if I’m being honest, even from a team concept defensively, it’s been pretty good in the playoffs to this point.”

Subban and Ekholm have been great, but based on possession numbers Subban’s been exceptional, with a 67.03-percent Corsi at 5-on-5 to lead all skaters in the series.

When you add that effectiveness to his agitation on the ice to his calculated reindeer games in the media, you realize that Subban is actually doing his best Chris Pronger impression, circa 2010.

***

You remember that, right? The Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, when Pronger’s humorously contentious press conferences were must-see and his puck-stealing antics drew attention from the Flyers’ performances before losing the series?

Subban’s got the same game going in 2017.

Interestingly enough, the two had a run-in during Subban’s rookie season. From Sports Illustrated:

In his first NHL game, a 3–2 loss in Philadelphia in February ’10, Subban challenged towering Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, perhaps the nastiest player of his generation, during a scrum at the end of the third period. “He’s got one guy in one hand and one guy in another,” Subban says. “I come right in the middle, grab him and say, ‘Let him go, let him go.’ And he didn’t say anything. I say, ‘I’m not scared of you.’ He says, ‘God, your breath stinks. Can you get out of here?'”

Maybe it’s time for Subban to get that halitosis checked out, seeing as how it’s apparently chronic …

Subban, like Pronger, is on a mission to disrupt his opponents by any means necessary. Has he frustrated the Penguins?

“You have to ask them that question,” said Subban.

Has he frustrated the Penguins?

“It doesn’t even matter who I go against. To be honest, I’m not looking at who’s on ‘D’ or who’s up front,” said Crosby.

“I haven’t seen him that much. Maybe he hasn’t been in the zone enough. But it doesn’t feel like every time I’m out there, he’s out there. I’m sure they’re not locked in on a certain pairing locked in against each line. I think they’re pretty comfortable with either pairing. I’m ready to compete against whoever,” he said.

Crosby and Subban have been opponents and they’ve been Team Canada teammates. Subban calls him the best player in the world.

“You have to respect your opponent, and I always do,” he said. “But in the same token, their job is to be better than us and our job is to be better than them. On the ice, it’s all bets are off. That’s the reality of professional sports: There’s no friends out there and you play hard to win.”

By any means necessary.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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