Cole Caufield was where a rookie is not always expected to be in overtime of a Stanley Cup game.
In exactly the right place.
Not being correctly positioned in the defensive zone when it mattered most, you’ll recall, was part of the reason Montreal coach Dominque Ducharme sat out Caufield, along with centre Jesper Kotkaniemi and defenceman Alexander Romanov, for Game 1 of the Canadiens’ playoff series against the Maple Leafs last week.
Montreal won that game, but lost Game 2. By Game 3, Caufield was back in, and it looks like he may be there for a while. Not only has he been dangerous in all three games he has played, but when Leafs winger Alex Galchenyuk fired a blind pass into the middle of the ice early in overtime of Game 5, Caufield was right there to pick it off, blow by Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin and head off on a 2-on-0 break with centre Nick Suzuki.
Caufield gave it to Suzuki, Suzuki gave it back, and then at the last moment Caufield, normally a shooter first, returned the puck to his teammate, who fired it past Jack Campbell in the Toronto net for a stunning 4-3 Montreal triumph. Only 59 seconds had elapsed in overtime.
With Kotkaniemi having scored the Canadiens’ third goal in the second period to stake the visitors to a 3-0 lead, it was a fairly triumphant night for the youngsters in bleu, blanc et rouge who weren’t quite trusted enough when the series began. Caufield, whose first two NHL goals were scored in overtime, continued to build his reputation as a young man with a sense of the moment.
If Ducharme was proved right by his lineup choices in Game 1, he now wouldn’t dare take out either Caulfield or Kotkaniemi as Montreal faces elimination again on Saturday night. That game will have about 2,500 paid fans in attendance, with many of them having paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of being part of the first live crowd at a Habs game since March, 2020.
Given the ridiculousness of the secondary ticket market, with prices as high as $12,000 per ticket, it will be one part root, root, root for the home team, and one part disgusting conspicuous consumption. Geoff Molson and the Canadiens must surely regret not inviting front-line workers or other deserving customers at normal prices. Perhaps they’ll end up with more Leafs supporters in attendance than they bargained for.
With Caufield and Kotkaniemi, not to mention Joel Armia, giving Montreal its first shot of real offence in the series, Game 5 demonstrated pretty clearly the path forward for the Habs if they are to advance to the next round. Carey Price now has a 10-0 playoff record since 2015 when his team has scored three or more goals.
While it may seem like Price has been the dominant figure from a Montreal perspective, his save percentage in the post-season of .919 is 11th among NHL goalies who have played in at least three playoff games this spring. Campbell has faced an average of about three shots more per game and has a save percentage of .944. Only Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (.950) has been better.
Clearly, it’s Montreal’s ability to score goals on Campbell that is more likely to decide this series than Price’s goaltending. That’s why it’s critical that Caufield and Kotkaniemi have gone from press box spectators to key performers. As much talk as there has been about the lack of production from Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, and the absence of John Tavares, it’s worth mentioning that Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, Montreal’s two best goal scorers, have combined for one goal in the series on 27 shots. So far, Campbell has stoned them.
That often happens in the post-season. Top offensive players are neutralized, and secondary scoring becomes critical. With goals from Armia (two), Kotkaniemi and Suzuki, the Canadiens got that for the first time in Game 5. The Canadiens were the NHL’s 17th-best offence during the regular season, and without Jonathan Drouin the need for Ducharme to get offence from other sources is critical.
None of Phillip Danault (one goal), Tomas Tatar (0 goals) or Brendan Gallagher (0 goals) have created appreciable offence, while Artturi Lehkonen was a healthy scratch for Game 5. Caufield hasn’t scored, but he has six shots and has hit at least two posts. He’s constantly lurking and needs to be marked. Kotkaniemi, meanwhile, had only five goals in the regular season but seems to be finding himself in this series and now has two goals in four appearances.
Price, who didn’t play from April 19 until Game 1 of this series because of a concussion, is showing he’s fit enough to play, but he’s not performing miracles. He’s not playing like, say, Jean-Sébastien Giguère did against favoured Detroit in the 2003 playoffs when he stopped 165 of 171 shots as the Ducks swept the Wings. But Price is plenty good enough to beat the Leafs, particularly as the weight of recent history that Sheldon Keefe dismissed as “irrelevant” when the series started builds on Toronto.
Montreal’s power play (0-for-the series) is nightmarishly bad but the Canadiens have shown an ability to force the Leafs into multiple turnovers high in the offensive zone and then turn those opportunities into goals.
When Keefe’s team doesn’t commit those turnovers, it becomes very difficult for Montreal to create enough offence. As long as Toffoli and Anderson continue to slumber. Caufield and Kotkaniemi are the X-factors, players with enough offensive skill to push Montreal over the top.
They weren’t needed when this series started. They certainly are now.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin