P.K. vs. E.K.
This, after all, is where it all began.
It was on the Scotiabank Place ice surface in early 2009 that the hockey world that doesn't scout first awakened to the astonishing skills of P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson.
Both young players were named to the world junior hockey championship's all-star team. Karlsson was further awarded the International Ice Hockey Federation's award for best defenceman. Subban, also a defenceman, scored the first goal in the gold-medal game, leading Canada to a 5-1 victory over Karlsson's Sweden.
Last season Karlsson, today a 22-year-old with the Ottawa Senators, took the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman. This season Subban, today a 23-year-old with the Montreal Canadiens, is considered a leading candidate to win the 2013 Norris in a year in which Karlsson missed most of the season with a sliced Achilles tendon.
Three games ago, however, Karlsson came back a mere 10 weeks after surgery. And his return has turned Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoff series between the second-place Canadiens and the seventh-place Senators, set to begin Thursday in Montreal, into a match of the duelling defencemen.
So competitive are they that on Tuesday Karlsson feigned not even being aware of Subban four years back in Ottawa: "No, not really."
That would be highly unlikely, given that Subban, with his size, his spinnerama moves, end-to-end rushes and love of bright lights and microphones was the most-compelling player at those world juniors. Karlsson, in contrast, was the quiet, efficient, little Swedish defenceman that it often took a trained hockey eye to notice his magic on the ice.
Their career arcs to spring, 2013, have not been parallel. Subban has often been a lightning rod of controversy, his habits on the ice early on criticized by veterans, his brashness in the dressing room sometimes resented by teammates, his contractual holdout to start the 2013 season hotly debated by fans who seem both to adore him and despise him. There are even shots in Ottawa that P.K. stands for "Pretend Karlsson."
Karlsson, on the other hand, began as the model Senator – working the team's 2008 draft table as if he were a coffee runner rather than the team's top pick – fitting in seamlessly with the team and quietly signing a lucrative contract extension in the off-season. He has even babysat captain Daniel Alfredsson's four children, including changing the odd diaper.
How, then, could they not be the main story line heading into Game 1 Thursday night in Montreal?
"There will be a lot of good story lines this series as it goes on," says Alfredsson. But, he concedes, "They're probably the best players on each team.
"Both of them are really good skaters, good with the puck, shoot the puck, create offence a lot by themselves as defencemen, which doesn't happen too much in this league any more.
"They kind of stand out."
Subban knows this, but isn't anxious to see the two of them stand alone in what is still a team sport. "Erik's a great player and I'm sure he'd say the same thing," Subban told reporters on Monday. "This series isn't going to be decided by two players."
Perhaps not, but this series is certainly going to be affected, seriously, by how the two youngsters on defence perform. Each has proved critical to his team; each can be that elusive cliché so prized lately in hockey talk: a game-changer.
"We both play on the edge a bit," says Karlsson. "And we like to create offensive plays and take a lot of shots. If the puck goes in, that's a game changer."
Karlsson is an open admirer of Subban. "I think he proved last year that he's a great player," the Ottawa defenceman says. "I think he proved even more this year that he's an even better player. He's grown a lot since he came into the league and he's one of the guys that we're going to have to be aware of. He's dangerous in all the zones. I think he proved to everyone that he's here to stay.
"He plays hockey in a fun way. I think he enjoys himself out there. And he trusts his instincts and plays offensively – and you know that's kind of the way I think I want to play, too."
Karlsson, on the other hand, is not without his admirers on the opposite side of the ice.
"This guy can skate," says Montreal forward Colby Armstrong of Karlsson. "His head's up, he can make something out of nothing. In Boston [on Sunday night] he did that slap shot pass across the blueline, if it's anyone else that's getting picked off and going the other way.
"This guy's a special player and someone you have to watch, it's like he's all nimbly-bimbly on his skates, he can bounce around out there like nothing else. A tough player to contain, for sure."
As, of course, is Subban.
"People pay a lot of money and they want to see the best players in the world," Subban said Monday, "and he's one of them, so to get a player like that back will make the series more interesting.
"But it's not P.K. Subban against Erik Karlsson."
All repeat now: It's not P.K. Subban against Erik Karlsson. … It's not P.K. Subban against Erik Karlsson. … It's not …
With files from Sean Gordon