Canadiens' Caufield continues to play biggest role in his own development

Chris Wideman scored the eventual game-winning goal and added two assists as the Montreal Canadiens took down the New Jersey Devils 7-4.

This thing started in another game against New Jersey, with a different coach behind the bench and a different result falling on the Montreal Canadiens' side.

It’s important to remember when putting Cole Caufield’s miraculous turnaround to his season in perspective. Because even if Martin St. Louis deserves a fair deal of credit for what we’ve seen from Caufield over the last two months, it’s the kid himself who deserves most of it.

He’s the one who scored a goal and added an assist in a 7-4 win over the Devils on Thursday. And even if St. Louis put him in a position to do it, only Caufield could control the result.

St. Louis recognized Caufield was playing with more confidence early on in his tenure and quickly bolstered it by placing him with Nick Suzuki and upping his ice-time by close to four minutes on average. But it’s Caufield who has rewarded that faith with 16 goals and 29 points over his last 26 games.

The first signs he was going to do it were shown in a 7-1 loss to New Jersey on Feb. 8, with Dominique Ducharme parked behind the Canadiens’ bench for what turned out to be the last time. Caufield had four shots on net that night, he had his team’s best scoring chances and was unquestionably its best player, and it was patently obvious something had changed in him. Even if the result was similar to so many before it over his first 30 games — with his name not featured in either the goal or assist column.

It was after a three-week pause, which began on Jan. 18, that Caufield returned to Montreal refreshed, healthy and prepared to show his first portion of the season was an aberration. He caught COVID after a 5-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes, spent the next five days in quarantine, and then went home to Wisconsin to ride out the remainder of his forced time in the United States.

It was there, surrounded by family and friends and practising in the rink in which he became a college star, that Caufield reset his mind.

"Put the past behind you and look forward to the games coming ahead," he said upon reflection after returning to Montreal. "You can only really focus on the next day. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself."

It was a hard lesson to learn, and a vital one in what was supposed to be a dream rookie season that appeared as though it was turning into a nightmare.

Caufield had never struggled prior — not through his minor hockey career, not in establishing himself as the highest-scoring player to ever come through the US National Development Team Program, not in debuting in the AHL, and certainly not in jumping into the world’s best league late last season and immediately establishing himself as a big-game player on Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final — and it took him time away from the Canadiens to figure out how to deal with it.

How Caufield did that was by getting back to basics, getting back to work, and getting back to the game that brought him to this level in the first place.

The growth in Caufield’s performance ever since has been exponential.

There were several examples of it in what turned out to be Montreal’s first regulation-time win over the Devils since January 2017.

The first one was when Caufield made a smart play coming over the line to feed Rem Pitlick, notching his 20th assist of the season on the goal Suzuki scored to make it 1-0 Canadiens 4:35 into the first period.

The second one came nine minutes later when he flew into the zone after reading Suzuki was about to earn possession of the puck. Caufield created enough separation to get himself a clean breakaway and score.

Earlier in the year, he may have tried to make Andrew Hammond bite on a fake or two. He likely would’ve booted the puck off the post or wide of the net. But this time around, the 21-year-old just leaned on his stick, telegraphed his shot, and sent the puck right over Hammond’s glove without hesitation.

"I think his shot’s definitely one of the strongest points of his game, and he can beat any goalie from anywhere," Suzuki said to reporters on site afterward. "So, just having the confidence that you can just come in and rip one instead of trying to deke the goalie out, I feel like it’s a big plus for him."

After Caufield scored the goal, he didn’t even celebrate. It was his 17th of the season, and he treated it like it was one of many more he intends on scoring over the final 11 games.

He made several more plays away from the puck to get himself chances against the Devils, finishing the night with three shots on net and six attempts total. He played great.

It was just the same as Caufield has in almost every game since that one against New Jersey a couple months ago.

"When he plays with swagger and confidence, he’s a lot of fun to watch, he’s a lot of fun to play with," Suzuki said. "And he’s going to be a big part of the team in the future. When he’s playing like that he’s tough to stop."

That proved to be a big factor on this night. Chris Wideman returning to the lineup and scoring a goal and two assists was one, too. And Jake Evans and Joel Armia hitting the board for the Canadiens were others.

But what’s happened with Caufield in this redemption tour has a greater bearing on the team’s future. He was expected to be a star this season and struggled to live up to that billing out of the gate. Now it appears he’s establishing that status, with only 33 other players in the league producing at a higher clip since early February.

Did Ducharme give him the best opportunity to show it earlier? The answer is decisively no.

But Caufield didn’t do enough to help himself, either. He lost focus a bit, dwelled on his misfortune a bit — a 1.4 per cent shooting percentage was well below anything he’d ever experienced at any level of hockey and indicative of his bad luck — and he started looking around him instead of within for solutions.

That stopped when he returned from Wisconsin.

Sure, Caufield has had plenty of help from St. Louis, and certainly from Suzuki (who has produced a point per game over his last 26), but he is most responsible for what’s happened to himself over this second half.

The coach knows it’s important to keep that in perspective. It’s why when he was asked about Caufield a week ago, St. Louis said, "I think he’s been his own evolution, so to speak, because I think he cleared his mind, just realized that he hadn’t forgotten how to play hockey."

"He’s played with a lot of jump," St. Louis added when he was asked in Tampa Bay about his role in Caufield’s development. "I wouldn’t say it was me that got Cole going. I think Cole got Cole going."

He talked about getting Caufield to the next level from here, and there’s no question he’ll have a strong influence in that process.

But Caufield will have the biggest say in where his career goes from here, and it seems clear now — by the way he’s playing — that he knows it.

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