Suzuki, Caufield facing early adversity to propel stagnant Canadiens offence

Alexis Lafreniere scored his first goal of the season and the New York Rangers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 3-1.

MONTREAL— Zero—that’s how many points the Montreal Canadiens have collected in the standings through three games.

That’s how many goals they’ve scored on 11 power plays, and that’s how many points Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield have combined for so far this season.

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On Saturday at the Bell Centre, those two players were introduced to a capacity crowd of 21,105 and the roof nearly blew off as they each skated to centre ice as part of the home-opening ceremony. Suzuki, fresh off a 41-point output over 56 games that propelled him to lead the Canadiens with 15 points in 22 playoff games and had him minted with an eight-year, $63-million contract earlier this week, was wearing an ‘A’ on his jersey and was greeted as one of the team’s leaders. And the cheers for Caufield—the former 15th overall pick in 2019 who displayed his Hobey Baker-winning talents immediately with the Canadiens on their run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final—were so loud, his parents might have heard them from Wisconsin.

Perhaps they were still ringing in his ears as he corralled the puck early in the second period of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers, as he stormed in from the left wing, got on his front foot to uncork his typically lethal snapshot and whiffed. Or maybe they were rattling around Caufield’s mind, along with several other thoughts he’d prefer to not be having when he’s just trying to play the game and go with the natural flow of things.

Canadiens Dominique Ducharme didn’t dismiss the idea.

“That’s something he doesn’t usually do, and I think that’s mental. That’s overthinking it when you have a chance like that,” he said of Caufield’s whiff. “Some guys say it’s squeezing the stick, but for other guys, it’s looking to make the perfect shot because of that feeling. At one point, guys like that, when you get on a roll, you get those pucks (and) you don’t even think about it; it’s just natural, boom it goes. Even when you shoot, you know it’s going to go in.”

“Right now, they don’t have that,” said Ducharme in reference to both Caufield and Suzuki, and he was right.

They didn’t have it through the first four periods of the season with Tyler Toffoli. They didn’t have it with Artturi Lehkonen through the final two periods of their 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. And they definitely didn’t have it with Joel Armia in Saturday’s loss to the Rangers.

Suzuki and Caufield weren’t alone.

Toffoli and Brendan Gallagher—two guys capable of each scoring 30 goals, as Ducharme put it earlier on Saturday—haven’t managed to put any of the 20 shots they’ve combined for in the back of the net. Josh Anderson, a former 27-goal scorer, is also stuck on zero. Same goes for Armia and Jake Evans, who had Montreal’s best chances against New York.

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“We’ve scored three goals and (Jonathan) Drouin’s got two,” said Ducharme. “The other one is (from) a defenceman (Chris Wideman).

“Obviously, we know we’re better than this offensively, and we’ll (prove) that.”

There’s no time like the present, as Drouin pointed out.

“You never want to start the season on that side where you’re 0-3,” he said. “I thought we played a good first game in Toronto. In Buffalo, we played terribly. Tonight was more our game, other than too many penalties. In the second period, we gave them that one power-play goal that took momentum away from our five-on-five game.

“But it is hard a little bit to just say it’s three games and move on. We want to get a win and get that column going a little bit more now.”

That’s going to depend much on how Suzuki and Caufield respond to this early adversity.

The expectations for both players are sky-high, but the pressure is no bigger than what they put on themselves.

When we asked Caufield at the start of training camp about former USA teammate Trevor Zegras suggesting he’d score 40 goals over this rookie season, he did the opposite of cowering away from it.

“I love that,” the 20-year-old said. “I think Trevor’s the only one who said it. I don’t know how many people agreed with it, but I’m on Trevor’s side.”

When we asked Suzuki after Saturday’s game why he and Caufield weren’t producing as expected, he pointed inward.

“I think when we forecheck well and turn pucks over and strike quick, that’s when we’re at our best. And some of the times I’ve felt that I could make a play, I’ve missed it,” Suzuki said. “I missed Cole in the slot on the one time from behind the net. And then last game, there’s plays that I need to be making. It just hasn’t happened…”

You know it will for both players soon enough.

And you know it’s going to come for them if they zone out a bit from the big picture and get focused on the finer details.

“I’ll take some time to sit down with those two guys,” said Ducharme. “At the same time, it’s easy to say, ‘Control what you can control.’ Still, when you get that puck and that chance to shoot, it’s in the back of your mind, it’s that feeling, it’s that confidence part.

“But you can get one off your shinpad and you go on a roll. If you don’t go there, you won’t get those kinds of chances, so it’s just simplifying things and going back at it.”

That’s the process this entire Canadiens team needs to get to immediately to halt this skid.

Cedric Paquette acknowledged they overpassed at times in Saturday’s game, Drouin said they had too many one-and-done opportunities and not enough players going to the net, and Ducharme said they want to take a maximum of three penalties per game and not four in one period like they did in the second.

Nowhere is a return to basics more necessary than on the power play.

“Everyone gets frustrated when we’re not scoring on the power play,” said Suzuki. “Hurts kind of the whole team and takes away momentum for us. We have to do a better job. I thought we broke the puck in a lot better than we have, had some good looks, but just haven’t found a way to get it in the net, and that’s the most important part.”

It can be seen as the difference between an 0-3 record and a 2-1 record.

The Canadiens have essentially lost two of three games 2-1—Kevin Rooney made it 3-1 by scoring into an empty net with 10 seconds to go in Saturday’s game—and not capitalizing on their chances is the biggest reason why.

That needs to change on Tuesday, when the San Jose Sharks visit the Bell Centre. Anything would be better than zero.

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