Canadiens' Caufield showing he can be counted on in most crucial moments

Cole Caufield scored the overtime winner for the Montreal Canadiens as they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2. Caufield now has two goals to start his NHL career, both overtime winners.

MONTREAL — Cole Caufield didn’t get the Montreal Canadiens there, he got them through.

When Caufield flashed into the slot and got the puck on his stick with a chance to score the second goal of his NHL career, his second overtime winner in as many games, there was no hesitation. He ripped it into the top corner of Jack Campbell’s net and earned the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre.

It was their third straight — all three of them by way of comeback — and a win that pulled them even in points with the Winnipeg Jets in the North Division.

Both teams have five games left, the Jets currently have the edge because they have 21 regulation wins to Montreal’s 20, but this is a race because of a couple of young Canadiens players who have made a huge difference at the most crucial juncture of the regular season.

One of them is Caufield — the five-foot-seven 20-year-old who was born to score goals like the two he’s earned in five NHL games. As teammate Phillip Danault put it after Monday’s win, “Cole’s very small, but he loves those big moments.”

“That’s for sure,” Danault continued. “In overtime, he’s always there. We’ve seen since the beginning, seriously, he’s got a hell of a freaking shot. Really great addition, and at the right time for our team.”

Caufield came out of college in late March riding in on that Hobey Baker high, ripping three goals and an assist in his only two AHL games with the Laval Rocket before joining the Canadiens right when they needed him most.

Nick Suzuki, 21, has been here since the start. He opened his sophomore season on a seven-game point streak, he had 12 points over his first 13 games, and then he hit a bit of a wall.

Well, Suzuki has taken a sledgehammer to that brick. His first two assists in Monday’s game got the Canadiens to overtime, and his third was notched before he took a seat on Montreal’s bench and watched Caufield uncork the shot that won it.

With the performance, Suzuki unlocked his Schedule ‘A’ bonus, with 24 assists earning him an extra $145,122. It also extended his point streak to six games, over which he’s been in on 10 of the 16 goals the Canadiens have scored.

“I think he took a step,” said Danault. “I think he found his game—and found his game every single game, too. It’s not one every two games. It’s hard to get in the NHL, too. It’s the biggest value (when) you get your game and you stay steady night after night.

“I think Nick is doing a great job. And he wants to win, he wants to be the difference maker, too, and he is.”

It didn’t happen automatically. Suzuki rode through his struggles, kept his head up, kept it in perspective that he’s a young player who’s frequently going up against the best lines of the opposition and the best defencemen in the North, and he never allowed himself to get discouraged.

All along, the Canadiens coaching staff stuck by him and let him find his way through.

“It was definitely a learning curve,” said Suzuki. “Last year, I don’t want to say I was a little sheltered, but not always going up against the top lines. Now I think I’m confident in going out and playing against whoever. Just trying to build the trust from the coaching staff that they can put me out there in important moments. I struggled a little bit during the middle (portion) of the season, so just wanted to keep learning, keep improving and just build my confidence against top players on other teams.”

It’s there now, and there’s something to take from that if you’re coach Dominique Ducharme.

He must show the same confidence to 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, whom he rightly benched with nine minutes left in the third period. He must show it to Alex Romanov, who had an even rougher first period than Kotkaniemi and was moved from the first defence pair to the third one in the second.

And Ducharme will, because he knows both those players are as important to the Canadiens’ present as they are to their future.

He’ll have a tougher decision to make on Caufield once Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher are all prepared to return from injury — assuming no one else goes down between now and then. Because, like Suzuki, Kotkaniemi and Romanov, Caufield can make a difference now, but unlike them, he has only played a handful of games at this level and does require more sheltering than the others.

That’s been obvious throughout each of the Wisconsin native’s games so far, and this one was no different.

But his game-breaking ability has shone through, as well, and it’s extremely difficult to turn away from.

How many kids can jump into the NHL and not freeze up when the puck’s on their stick with a chance to win the game? How many hop on against John Tavares, William Nylander and T.J. Brodie and end up making the best play on the ice?

Not enough is the answer.

But the Canadiens have one — a kid drafted 15th overall in 2019 because he’s a threat to score on nearly every chance he gets — and they don’t have any others outside of Tyler Toffoli, who notched his 28th of the season to tie Monday’s game 1-1 in the second period.

They have players who can score — Gallagher’s a two-time 30-goal man who had 14 in 35 games before he suffered a fractured right thumb, Josh Anderson has 17 goals and Corey Perry and Tomas Tatar are veterans capable of chipping in.

But Caufield’s a natural at it, and Ducharme knows this.

“He’s handling the situations well,” the coach said. “He knows it’s an adaptation for him, but, like all other young players, he’s getting through it. At 3-on-3, especially with the space that’s on the ice, when he has a chance to get his shot off, he’s very dangerous. Even in the first period, he had an excellent chance on the power play (Caufield hit the post). It’s his biggest strength — the speed and quality of his shot, the force and precision of it — so those are two big goals that he scored.”

It’s what Caufield has been doing ever since he began playing competitive hockey.

“I think he’s done it all levels, obviously,” said Suzuki. “It’s a big moment, playing against the Leafs. Back-to-back OT winners, and I was telling him I haven’t gotten one yet. So, he’s got two goals up on me. That’s pretty awesome for him and his confidence moving forward.”

Nothing should really hurt it, because every second Caufield spends with the Canadiens right now is a bonus, and every game he plays offers him an opportunity to show the situation won’t overwhelm him.

If Caufield continues to rise to the occasion, he’ll increase his chances of playing when it matters most.

“I think you need to feel it (out) every game, depending who you’re playing against and the matchups,” said Ducharme. “You need to weigh the kind of night that the kid has, so it’s different situations. It depends; you need to be looking at those things and making those decisions at the right times. It’s important for a young player to be put in the situations where they can succeed, so all those things matter.”

We’ll see how they factor in when the Canadiens need to get through the playoffs, because they’re a step closer to making them thanks to a couple of kids.

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