MONTREAL — After scoring his first NHL goal in a way he must’ve dreamt countless times, Cole Caufield declared 2021 the best year of his life.
That no fans were at the Bell Centre to watch this 20-year-old sniper streak down the wing and fire his shot into the top corner of Filip Gustavsson’s net for the overtime winner, in a game his Montreal Canadiens were trailing 2-0 in the third period and desperately needed to win in this pandemic-stricken NHL season, was but an infinitesimal sample of what’s made this one of the worst years in recorded history.
But a dream came true in that instant, at 2:25 into the extra frame of this thrilling game between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, and it was one of many brought to life over the last five months of Caufield’s existence. The kid from Stevens Point, Wisc., had world junior gold wrapped around his neck and the American flag draped across his shoulders in January. He followed a torrid February with the Wisconsin Badgers with two goals on Mar. 6 to help them to their first Big Ten Championship in 21 years.
A loss in the opening round of the Frozen Four was a brief disappointment at the end of the month, with the elation of signing his first NHL contract coming a day later. Then Caufield accepted the Hobey Baker Award an hour before making his professional debut with the Laval Rocket, scoring two goals—one of them the winner—and an assist. He scored the game winner the next night and then came his call to the big club on April 16. A first NHL road-trip started three days later and, on April 26, the 15th overall pick in the 2019 made his highly anticipated NHL debut.
Caufield will never forget May 1.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” he said. “It still hasn’t hit me yet.”
None of it, really. Caufield still hadn’t seen a replay of his first strike, still hadn’t processed that a legend of the game he grew up watching—Corey Perry—had collected the puck for him, and he was totally unprepared for what happened when he got to the locker room after giving his on-ice interview, simulcast on Hockey Night in Canada and TVA Sports.
“We were all waiting for him and we gave him the silent treatment,” said Jeff Petry, who had started this Canadiens comeback with his 12th goal of the season—and his first since Mar. 13. “We’ve seen it in years past with other guys walking in, not saying a word, and let him sit there. He kind of looked around a little confused and then everyone broke out and congratulated him.”
The thrill of a lifetime.
“It’s all pretty surreal right now,” Caufield said.
It felt scripted, though.
The diminutive winger who shattered current NHL-leading scorer Auston Matthews’ United States National Development Program team’s scoring record in 2019, who was the highest-scoring rookie in the Big Ten last year and put up 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games with Wisconsin this year, was due. Caufield, a one-shot shooter, put 11 on net over four games before his 12th finally hit the back of it.
“I think it turned out pretty good for him,” said 21-year-old Nick Suzuki, who set up Tyler Toffoli’s 27th goal to tie the game with 5:35 remaining in the third period. “It’s not a bad first goal to win it in overtime. He’s a scorer, he’s going to be scoring goals for a long time.”
That’s what made the build up to this one feel agonizingly long.
Objectively—and know that this is not a critique, because most players don’t just jump into the NHL and automatically start lighting it up—you could see some un-Caufield-like moments amidst the offensive zone creativity and general comfort he displayed all over the ice through these first four games; the odd mistimed flash through the neutral zone on the breakout, pucks ricocheting off his pallet and out of the offensive zone, and one hesitant play leading to a turnover on the power play that offered the Senators an odd-man rush in Saturday’s game.
“That comes with experience and finding ways to know what you can do and what you can’t do out there,” Caufield said. “It’s all kind of feeling it. Obviously, you’ve got to make the plays at the right time to be out there, so I’m just going to learn with every shift that I get and continue to watch film stuff and grow as a player and keep pushing myself to get better, because some of those pucks that roll off my stick can’t happen. Just going to keep working and sooner or later those will go in.”
One finally did. It may have taken four games for Caufield to do it, but it took less than 53 minutes of playing time to get the goal that will accelerate that adaptation period.
And the best year of his life will continue.
“It all kind went pretty fast,” Caufield said. “Been a lot of trips, a lot of people who pushed me to get here, and obviously it’s the best year of my life so far and just going to keep growing from it. A lot of great experiences along the way and I learned a lot, so it was a big year for me and I’m just going to keep it going.”