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Blackhawks goaltender Malcolm Subban quietly excelling in backup role

Subban’s 2-0-1 record and .939 save percentage over his last three starts — despite their infrequency — has made him a reliable second option for the Hawks.

Malcolm Subban has made only four starts this season, but he’s been solid in each of the last three.
Malcolm Subban has made only four starts this season, but he’s been solid in each of the last three.
Paul Sancya/AP

With the Red Wings rushing out of the gate Monday, Malcolm Subban flashed his right pad to deny a wide-open, cross-seam shot by Robby Fabbri less than two minutes in.

Subban’s save set the tone for his stellar night. The 27-year-old Canadian goaltender finished with 27 saves on 29 shots, a “big part” — in coach Jeremy Colliton’s words — of how the Blackhawks overcame a poor team effort to win 3-2 in overtime.

In his last three starts, Subban is 2-0-1 with a .939 save percentage, which is better than starter Kevin Lankinen’s .930 mark over the same time period.

And Subban’s .917 save percentage this season is on pace for the best of his career.

Since his starts have been so infrequent and spread out — Jan. 13 and 26, Feb. 7 and 15 — he hasn’t received as much praise for his solid play as Lankinen has.

But Colliton has noticed.

“He’s taken opportunities when they’ve been given to him, and he’s made the most of them,” Colliton said Tuesday. “Obviously, ‘Lanks’ has played well for us and that’s great, but he can’t play all the games. You want to have a good balance, making sure everyone’s rested and can stay sharp. [Subban’s] giving us a chance to win. We’ve been getting points [in] the starts he’s been given. That’s how you build confidence in yourself.”

The strong start to 2021 was much-needed for Subban, whose previous tenure as the Golden Knights’ backup ended in a tailspin.

His 17-17-5 record and highly disappointing .895 save percentage over the two years combined, despite playing on one of the NHL’s best teams, made his starts popular targets for bettors — and not in a good way.

It was more of the same for Subban in this season opener, when he conceded five goals on 33 shots. That included an embarrassing own goal in which he left a gap between his body and the post — the puck ended up behind him and he knocked it in himself with his pad while trying to locate it.

After that, Subban worked hard with Hawks goalie coach Jimmy Waite. In every interview since then, he has noted his frequent “post work” with Waite.

In Monday’s win, the difference was clear: Subban stuck tight to his post whenever the puck was off to the side. If anything, he was slightly too committed to staying tight — twice he remained on one post while the puck skittered free on the opposite side, including during the Red Wings’ first goal — but that can be forgiven.

Another common theme in Subban’s interviews has been humility. No matter how many shots he faces, he insists “honestly” that his workload was light and easy. Such was the case again Monday.

“There’s some nights you have to do more than other nights,” he said. “But honestly, tonight I don’t think I had to make that many ‘grade-A’ saves . . . I just tried to not create second chances and either smother it or put the rebounds to good areas.”

Yet, Subban did make a number of great saves: the aforementioned Fabbri stop, a split-second reaction to deflect a steaming Patrik Nemeth slapper in the second period, and a right-pad save on Filip Zadina in the low slot with just six minutes left in regulation.

Subban has done that every time he has been on the ice lately — he just hasn’t seen it much. But he is making the most with his rare starts.

“In this league, wins are hard to come by,” he said. “It’s not easy to get one. So any time you get one, you’ve got to be happy.”