Long road back leads Subban to conference finals return

Photo: Christian Bonin

📝 by Patrick Williams

Malcolm Subban reached the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals with the Providence Bruins six years ago.

It has been a long journey back.

Since then, there have been plenty of stops and starts, twists and turns.

Surgery for an upper-body injury in January 2022, ending his campaign with the Buffalo Sabres. After months of recovery and training, Subban went to camp with the Sabres only to suffer another injury in a preseason contest with the Rochester Americans.

The 29-year-old, who was a National Hockey League regular from 2017 to 2021, now had a career to rebuild in the AHL.

A first-round pick by Boston in the 2012 NHL Draft, Subban was in his fourth pro season with Providence when the B’s made the Calder Cup conference finals. But Subban was a back-up to Zane McIntyre, and was limited to three appearances and just one start that postseason.

Before the start of the 2017-18 season, Subban was claimed off waivers by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. For the next three years, Subban had himself an NHL home, playing 63 games in a tandem with star Marc-Andre Fleury and reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2018.

He was acquired by Chicago on Feb. 24, 2020, and with the Blackhawks transitioning to a full rebuild, Subban found himself back in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs to open the 2021-22 campaign. Then came a trade to Buffalo, the injuries, and, well, here he is as the Amerks prepare to face the Hershey Bears in the Eastern Conference Finals.

This season has put an end to any concerns about Subban’s durability. After making his season debut with the Amerks on Nov. 18, Subban went on to appear in 39 of the club’s final 58 regular-season games, going 20-14-5 with a 2.94 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage. Now he is the undisputed number-one in Rochester and has made all eight starts in the club’s series wins over Syracuse and Toronto.

Subban has a .910 save percentage in those eight games, and when the Amerks have needed him most, he has been at his best. In Syracuse to decide the teams’ best-of-five North Division semifinal series, Subban delivered 44 saves in a Game 5 overtime victory in which Syracuse outshot the Amerks 28-8 over the third period and OT.

The Toronto native then helped the Amerks to a sweep of the Marlies, with 34-save performances in both Game 2 and Game 3. Rochester is now in the conference finals for the first time since 2004, and they are seeking their first Calder Cup since 1996, when the John Tortorella-coached Amerks were helping to put in place the winning organizational culture that set up success in Buffalo, including the Sabres’ own conference finals appearance in 1998 and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999. Rochester was a pipeline that consistently produced NHL-ready talent, and the Amerks won, too, making trips to the Calder Cup Finals in 1999 and 2000.

After a lengthy rebuild, the Sabres are once again counting on Rochester to fuel more NHL success. Optimism again surrounds the Sabres and their ever-growing base of prospects in Rochester. The Amerks have already sent Tage Thompson, Victor Olofsson, Peyton Krebs, JJ Peterka, Jack Quinn and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, among others, on to Buffalo. Top-end rookies Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen are among the young stars developing in Amerks colors this season.

And Amerks fans have responded, filling Blue Cross Arena this spring and bringing back the proud atmosphere that has surrounded the AHL’s second-oldest franchise. Last week, Rochester’s Oak Hill Country Club hosted the 2023 PGA Championship, and the Amerks took in a practice round.

Even on the golf course, the Amerks heard the city’s support.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Subban said. “Everywhere around the city, people are so excited. It’s just amazing to see. The camaraderie of the team has come together even more, which is crazy, because I thought we were a pretty close group at the start of the year, but it’s just been amazing. We’ve just been growing together every day.”

All the same, the Amerks need a calm, steady netminder, especially given their tendency to play run-and-gun, high-tempo hockey. With the team’s ample skill, that has been a successful approach, but it can leave Subban to face high-risk chances coming the other way.

“I try to stay as even-keeled as possible,” Subban said of his approach to playing in high-pressure Calder Cup Playoff games. “I think it just comes with experience that I’ve had over the years and trying to use that to my advantage. I know it helps the team a lot if I’m poised back there.

“I think you step out there, you hear the crowd, and instantly it’s human nature… Your body’s going to start going. Your mind’s going to start to want to get lost in that. It’s inevitable. I think for me it’s just not getting lost in the moment. Just stay focused and try to make the next save.”

But that mindset did not develop overnight. It took years of experience for Subban.

“I think my preparation has changed a lot,” Subban continued. “I’ve matured a lot, become a better pro. I think it’s focusing on the little things. I think back then I was always focused on the big things, but it’s the little things that you do every day that can add up to make a big difference.

“It might be small, but I think it goes a long way on the ice.”