ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Few teams have had the luxury of playing a Norris Trophy winner on their second defensive pairing, and fewer still have seen a player of that caliber accept the role readily.
In overtime of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Anaheim Ducks, Subban's savvy slap-shot fake weakened the Ducks' defensive structure before he deftly reversed the puck to winger James Neal. Neal's one-timer 9:24 into OT gave the Predators their third 1-0 series lead of the playoffs. All three of those wins have come on the road.
Setting up the winner was a fitting play for Subban, who has joked that if a film were made about his life, he would like Denzel Washington -- who has won Academy Awards for both best supporting actor and best actor -- to play him. But since coming to Nashville from the Montreal Canadiens last June in a blockbuster trade for another All-Star defenseman, Shea Weber, Subban has toed the line adroitly between leading man and supporting cast member. He still possesses the silky stride, the thundering shot, the inventiveness and the elusiveness of years past, but he has played a simpler, more straight-ahead game overall with perhaps fewer dramatic moments but no shortage of effective minutes on the ice.
"There wasn't any special one-on-one meetings," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said of Subban's evolution. "He's a terrific player, and I think he's just worked on fitting inside of the concept of how we want to play as a team. He's coachable. You can talk to him. He understands when you put something on the table, and he can find a different way to do that, and he gets that."
For Subban, who was not always in the good graces of former Canadiens bench boss Michel Therrien, the relationship with Laviolette has been a welcome change as well.
"He's an amazing communicator," Subban said. "He has an ability to understand every player on his team, not as a player but a person as well. He understands how everybody is different and uses that to make the team better and put everybody in a position to be successful. He's kind of done that seamlessly and his passion is second to no one's."
Subban began his career playing 274 consecutive games but was plagued by shoulder and foot injuries at the start of the season. He was initially paired with Swiss star Roman Josi, who had partnered with Weber last season, but Subban ultimately found a groove alongside Mattias Ekholm. The two developed a symbiotic relationship as defensive partners, with each rearguard giving the other freedom to seize opportunities in any area of the ice.
"If you defend well, you're going to get more opportunities up ice," Ekholm said. "We're not just a shutdown pair, either. If we spend more time in the offensive zone than in the D zone, we're going to have more scoring chances than the opposition."
Subban and Ekholm have become a trusted pairing across situations and they saw time against a variety of Anaheim forwards, including Conn Smythe candidate Ryan Getzlaf, who did not register a point in Game 1. Subban and Ekholm were not on the ice for either of Anaheim's goals, and both played key roles in Nashville's game-winner midway through overtime.
Ekholm, a mellow Swede with an unassuming demeanor, said that the ebullient Subban also complemented his personality effectively. "We're feeding off each other and learning from each other; we're really coming together," Ekholm added.
Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley is an assistant coach for Nashville. He focuses on the Predators' power play and the development of their D-men. Early in the season, Subban was "chasing a moving train," said Housley -- between adjusting to a new system and overcoming his injuries. Moving to the second pairing with Ekholm allowed Subban to find his footing and still contribute.
Subban trails only Josi in average time on ice for the Predators this postseason, and he and Ekholm have seen more deployments than any other Predators pairing. The comparisons with Weber -- once innumerable and, at times, deafening -- have quieted now that Subban's club has reached the conference finals and Montreal was eliminated in the first round under new coach Claude Julien.
Subban continues to thrive in a balanced, slightly-less-prominent role. He still flashes his pearly smile and intimidating slapper, but now he makes more quick plays up ice and focuses a bit more on sound defensive-zone coverage. He has posted eight points in 11 playoff games. In the process, he has managed to dispel critiques from his six seasons in Montreal.
"He's a guy who wants to win and prove himself," Housley said. "He had a lot to prove coming into this season."