By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You couldn’t blame goaltender Malcolm Subban if he flinched even just a little bit in the face of an NHL slap shot.
Seven months ago during warmups before a Providence Bruins game, the Bruins’ 2012 first-round pick (No. 24) suffered a life-threatening injury when a shot fractured his larynx. Although it was just an exhibition game, Subban returned to action Wednesday night and played the first two periods of a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings at TD Garden.
Subban’s previous game action was Feb. 5. The next night he landed in the hospital instead of the P-Bruins’ crease.
“To be honest. I felt like a lot of credit to my players and these guys on the team in practice and stuff, I haven’t had to really worry about that, getting hit. … To be honest I never really thought about it,” Subban said.
It helps too that Subban’s better equipped to prevent a repeat of his injury.
“So the neck of my helmet comes down more, throat protector and the neck guard,” he explained.
Subban said that maybe without the extra protection he’d be at least a little worried about getting hit. Fully protected with his equipment Wednesday, Subban had to worry more about the team in front of him. The Bruins defense corps featured one true veteran, Adam McQuaid, and the forward group wasn’t much more experienced.
The Bruins’ lack of experience showed in making Subban face 34 shots through just 40 minutes. In some ways, though, being under siege helped Subban find a rhythm. He allowed two goals in a 21-second span late in the first period. But seconds later the Red Wings had a 2-on-1. Subban made a save with his face mask to keep the Bruins within two.
“Those things are pretty big for a goaltender in terms of not letting in goals at a bad time and stuff,” he said. “It’s funny because when that 2-on-1 came, that’s exactly what I said in my mind was ‘this cannot go in.’ They just got two quick ones, the period’s almost over, you can’t let this one go in. I’m fortunate I made the same.”
The Bruins have been waiting for Subban to live up to his draft status and become a threat to Tuukka Rask’s reign, or become a trade chip multiple teams would covet. He was on track last season (.911 save percentage, 2.46 goals-against average) before the injury. This training camp the Bruins are covered not just with Rask as the No. 1 but Anton Khudobin, who signed a two-year contract over the summer, as the No. 2. Subban could push for a job in the NHL at some point this season, but it’s going to take him a while to find his game after so much time without game action. He skated hard in the summer and has been practicing hard. However, there’s no substitute for game speed.
Subban expected that to be an issue and was proven right against the Red Wings.
“It was great to finally get back out. Obviously really rusty, to be honest,” he said. “I felt not so much the goals even, just shots in general, especially in the first, obviously nerves had a little to do with it, but it’s the first time in a long time I could say that I felt not up to speed. I felt like usually I’m overplaying stuff too fast. But practice is a lot different from a game. At first I thought I was a little behind the play. That starts to open up a hole, my post coverage and stuff. A little rusty there. … But other than that I thought I played pretty well.”
Subban believed his performance was one to build on and assistant coach Joe Sacco agreed. Had it been a regular-season game, the Bruins would’ve left Subban in the game to keep building in the third period. Instead, they stuck to the pregame plan and inserted rookie Daniel Vladar for the third period.
It was more of a mercy pull considering the lack of support the Bruins provided soon. If he stays on track, he’ll be ready to steal some games, regardless of the performances in front of him, in the near future.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.