MONTREAL—They were situations begging for a one-shot scorer; three chances from the blue paint—two of them booted wide and a third sent directly into the goaltender.
If Jake Evans, Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar had capitalized on those shots, all of them coming in the first 10 minutes of this 5-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, we might not be talking about the urgency of bringing in Cole Caufield right now.
That option should be a luxury for these Montreal Canadiens, instead of an obvious and glaring necessity. This team shouldn’t be so desperate… not with a 19-goal scorer dressed, a couple more forwards not far behind and a defenceman who’s in the top-10—and was leading the NHL at one point in goals and points at his position. This team replete with more talent and depth than its had in recent years still ranks 11th out of 31 in the league in goals per game, and it shouldn’t have to be clawing from outside its ranks for help.
But the puck isn't going in for the Canadiens right now, with Saturday’s night loss being the third consecutive one in regulation. That’s not going to change by just making a tactical adjustment or two.
“We need to get more pucks to the net,” said Tatar of Montreal’s 19-shot effort in this game. “Our shots are getting blocked, they’re not getting through. We have to help each other in the O-zone and create a little bit of emotion. I feel like we’re too stationary and the pucks are just not going through right now and it’s hard to score. We have to be all five guys active in the O-zone and help each other and be there.
“Obviously we want to score more, and these are some of the things we’ll have to work on before the next game.”
But it’s not a situation one practice is going to solve before Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are the second-highest scoring team in the NHL.
And let’s be real; Caufield, a 20-year-old who's fresh out of college, can’t cure it all on his own, either.
But there’s no doubt he can bring a spark at a time when this team desperately needs one. We’re talking about a guy who gets his shots through, a guy who’s beyond creative in the offensive zone, a guy people are going to quickly recognize as a top-percentile shooter—even in this league he’s never played in before—and a guy who would’ve changed the complexion of Saturday’s game if he had taken at least one of the three shots the Canadiens missed in the first 10 minutes.
Because Drouin, who has two goals on the season, wasn’t going to do it with his wide-open look. Neither was the two-goal scoring Evans, who fanned on an even better opportunity when he was given the puck in the slot on a 3-on-2 rush in the second period.
That play came shortly after Nikolaj Ehlers did what he does best to make it 2-0 Jets with his 17th goal of the season.
It was challenged for goaltender interference, but it stood. As did Paul Stastny’s 12th before it.
Instead, the game devolved after Montreal failed to capitalize on its chances. It was a mental breakdown of sorts from there, after consecutive 3-2 losses that preceded this one had the team unsure of itself to start and completely on its heels to finish.
“Scoring the first goal in that kind of game probably would’ve given energy to our guys, and getting scored on did the opposite,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme.
Still, the Canadiens survived some spin-cycle shifts in their own zone and made it out of the first period tied 0-0. They didn’t bury their chances but didn’t surrender much aside from momentum.
Where this one really got away from them was on the power play, where they had two opportunities early in the second period and weren’t able to generate a quality chance on either one.
It’s a power play that has been completely sterile since Mar. 30—no team in the league has performed worse than 1-for-21 since—and one so obviously in need of a specialist who can open up some more options.
Cue Caufield’s music. Because the sniper, who in his professional debut with the Laval Rocket scored this goal (below) on the man-advantage, is built to provide what the Canadiens need there. This is the kind of goal he’s scored at every level, and he’ll do it here, too.
Caufield added another goal that proved to be the winner after setting one up for Xavier Ouellet in Friday’s game, and then he scored the winner in Saturday’s game. The Wisconsin kid did it after a seven-day quarantine and a couple of practices and Zoom meetings. He did it after scoring 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games, after helping the NCAA’s Badgers win a Big-10 championship and after he was named the college circuit’s best player and awarded the Hobey Baker.
Three goals on his first nine shots as a pro.
“He’s not just a shooter,” Rocket coach Joel Bouchard said after the first game, and he was dead right. Caufield’s an elite talent who has grown in every aspect of his game.
He proved at it Wisconsin this past season, and he proved it immediately in his first real test against men.
If it wasn’t obvious the Canadiens needed Caufield after that, it sure was after watching them miss their best opportunities against the Jets. It was glaring after watching those futile power plays. It was abundantly clear after watching leading scorer Tyler Toffoli (19 goals) and second-leading scorer Josh Anderson (14 goals) combine for one shot and two attempts in the game.
Neither centre is the right man for the job in the absence of the team’s feistiest winger—and certainly not down 3-0. But Caufield is, and he shouldn’t play another game with the Rocket before he gets a chance to show it with the Canadiens.
We don’t see how general manager Marc Bergevin could conclude otherwise. And that’s just one of a few moves he might have up his sleeve between now and Monday’s trade deadline.
Bergevin has cap flexibility, he’s got roster players he can move, he’s got 12 picks in the upcoming draft and a boatload of prospects to deal from, and his team needs help.