MONTREAL — When Cole Caufield picked off a pass at his own blue line and stormed down the ice 2-on-0 in overtime with Nick Suzuki beside him and the Canadiens season twisting in the wind, when he decided in a split second not to use his best weapon — his shot — because it wasn’t the best play available to him, it was only confirmation of what was clear from the start.
He should’ve been playing in this series as of Game 1. He shouldn’t have been sitting while the Canadiens scrambled to score three goals through the first two games. Had he been playing, he might have found the comfort to do what he did in Game 5 when the Canadiens needed it just as badly in Game 3, and maybe the Canadiens would have been approaching Game 6 with the opportunity to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of having to win just to keep their season alive.
You don’t turn away from players with that it-factor Tyler Toffoli described in this piece in The Players’ Tribune. You turn towards their ability to change the game — or win it outright — with one flick of the wrists; you let it loose and trust the payoff will be higher than the pitfall.
It’s a harder decision if you only consider that Caufield had played just 12 games of pro hockey before this series, and only 10 of them in the NHL. It’s complicated if you see that, despite producing four goals — two of them overtime winners — there were times he uncharacteristically clamped up.
But it’s not that hard if you balance that against everything else Caufield showed this year.
Even if the 20-year-old was playing at a level far below this one, he was head and shoulders above his competition. He authored a season that measured up with any of the great ones ever seen in the NCAA, scoring 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games, and he was awarded the Hobey Baker because of it.
And that was after Caufield shattered scoring records with the United States National Development Program Team, leaving the elite of the elite in Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane in his wake en route to being drafted 15th overall by the Canadiens in 2019.
Caufield’s teammates knew. All of them have vaunted his skill since he arrived in Montreal, but they’ve also all focussed on the other thing that should’ve ruled the evaluation from the start.
"He’s a composed player," said Montreal’s most composed player, Carey Price, who was 200 feet away from Thursday’s game-winner, looking down the ice from his crease. With his view obstructed, he was still pretty certain the play he saw developing at his own blue line was going to result in a goal.
"He showed it every level," Price continued, "so I’m excited to watch him grow and continue to succeed in this league."
It’s not to say Caufield didn’t become a better player watching the first two games of this series unfold. But it’s doubtful that process was as beneficial to his maturity as playing the last three games were.
"Being able to watch and get that experience is one thing," Caufield said on Friday, "but being able to play and be out there and experience those things on the ice is another.
"So, it’s been really good for me to be out there, and I think every shift I’m just learning more things and it’s working out for the best. Just getting more experience, and every shift counts. At this point, it’s all about execution and doing the right things. I think the experience is out the window, and you need to do the right thing to help the team win."
It’s with his confidence bolstered that the Wisconsin native can help the Canadiens do exactly that in Game 6 on Saturday.
Caufield’s game has evolved with each passing shift, and at least Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme has learned more about him in watching that process play out.
He played him 20 shifts in Game 3, 26 shifts in Game 4 and 23 more in Game 5. We would expect he’ll get on the ice as much as necessary when the series shifts to the Bell Centre for Game 6.
"What I like is that he’s really paying attention to everything," said Ducharme. "We know that he’s an offensive guy that can score goals, but he wants to be playing the game the right way. And those little things, when you talk over one situation with him and you see the same situation or something really similar happening again, you can see he’s paying attention because he’s adjusting to that. He’s really paying attention to what we talked about and little details in the game. So, I think I really like that for right now, but I also mostly like that for his future. It’s really nice to see the way he’s reacting right now, the way he’s handling himself."
Caufield’s handling it like a seasoned pro. He’s not dwelling on having to sit and watch the first two games, or on the challenges he and the Canadiens faced in the next two, or on the deciding play he made on Thursday. He’s just preparing himself to be at his best in the next one.
"Game 1, 2, 3, 4 — they’re all behind us. Five, too," Caufield said. "You put the past in the past and you regroup…"