Mike Harrington: Subban breathing goofiness into Cup final

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — P.K. Subban’s mouth is becoming the biggest sideshow in this Stanley Cup final. The way Subban and his defensive mates are putting the clamps on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ stars is the biggest actual story.

The Predators will be trying to even the series in Game Four on Monday night in Bridgestone Arena, and they have a strong chance of doing that if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel remain invisible.

Neither Crosby nor Malkin had a shot in goal in the Penguins’ 5-1 loss here Saturday in Game Three — the first time both of them have been blanked in the shot column in the same playoff game in their NHL career. Crosby and Kessel are both without a goal in the series.

Subban and partner Mattias Ekholm are driving Malkin crazy, while Crosby is getting a heavy done of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. The Penguins’ stars are having the same fate as Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf had against the Predators in the previous three series.

Nashville’s fifth goal Saturday came with both Nos. 71 and 87 in the Pittsburgh penalty box after taking frustration penalties during a garbage-time scrum. The game ended and then the wackiness started when NBC’s Pierre McGuire asked Subban who said what to whom when Subban and Crosby came together in the dying seconds.

“He told me my breath smelled but I don’t know,” Subban said. “I used some Listerine before the game. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Subban went on to essentially repeat the same, um, catfish story to the media mob that descended upon the dressing room a few minutes later.

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“I really don’t understand why he said that because I used Listerine before the game,” Subban said incredoulsly. “I thought my breath smelled great.”

Subban, of course, knows how to make himself the story. And there’s often a purpose to it. His guarantee of a win in Game Three took a lot of heat — and attention — off the brutal goaltending of Pekka Rinne in the first two games. And maybe Subban was just making a joke at McGuire’s expense after the NBC man’s viral exchange about bad breath with Penguins winger Phil Kessel following a game last season.

But by the time players and media returned to the media Sunday morning, Subban’s breath was the talk of the series. The Predators reportedly even stashed a bottle of Listerine in Subban’s locker before it was removed prior to reporters entering.

How was Subban’s breath Sunday? “It’s better I guess, you could say today.”

Crosby was less than thrilled when the subject of Subban’s words came up Sunday.

“He made that up, I didn’t say that,” Crosby said calmly. “That’s all part of it. He’s a guy that likes the attention. If he wants to make stuff up, what can I do?”

What Crosby needs to do is generate some offense. For all his greatness, did you know that he has just three goals in 22 career games in the final? Or that he has scored just once in the last 19 appearances in hockey’s ultimate round?

“You play against different styles of defensemen and with them, they just skate themselves out of trouble,” Crosby said. “At times where you do get the puck, you’ve got to challenge them and force them to play defense.”

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“Our defense is built on skating and making the right decisions,” agreed Josi. “We just skate hard with them.”

The Predators are essentially playing with four blueliners in this series. No. 3 pair Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin don’t get a lot of quality minutes, with their ice time boosted over 12 minutes Saturday with the score out of reach. If you’re a Penguins’ forward looking to score, you’re going to see a lot of Nashville’s big four. Particularly here, where the Preds have the last change.

“It doesn’t matter who I go against,” Crosby said. “I go out there and compete and to be honest I’m not looking at who’s on D or up front. I’m just going out there to compete against whoever it is.

“To be honest, I haven’t seen PK much. We haven’t probably been in the zone enough. I don’t feel like every time I’m out there, PK is out there. You guys would probably watch closer than I do and that’s the way it feels. I’m pretty sure they’re not locked on a certain pairing being out there against a certain line.”

Kessel continues to struggle to put the puck in the net, with just two goals over his last 12 games. Assistant coch Rick Tocchet, Kessel’s close confidante and rumored to be one of Jason Botterill’s prime target for the Sabres’ head coaching slot when this series is done, skated around with Kessel for about five minutes Sunday.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said all of his primetime players simply have to trust the process of playing the game the right way and not overload on concerns over puck luck.

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“It’s hard hockey out there. You’ve got to fight for every inch of ice and they command a lot of attention,” said Sullivan. “They’re always playing through our opponents’ top players but that’s what makes them as good as they are.”

This Nashville defense is plenty good too. Ellis and Ekholm are just steady as they come. Josi’s three points Saturday made him the first defenseman with three points in a final game since Chicago’s Duncan Keith in 2010.  Subban is the showman, the big name who gets the bulk of the attention and is reveling in his first trip to the final after never getting here with Montreal.

And Subban is constantly working to be better. He told us so Sunday with a straight face.

“You can’t be perfect, you know,” Subban said. “There’s things I have to work on — and making sure my breath smells good is one of them.”

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