I can’t say I expected Cole Caufield to dominate like he did in his first NHL playoff game. His third period was the best by a Montreal Canadiens player in the post-season. Sure, most of his great shifts happened when the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to adopt a shutdown strategy. They didn’t press as hard for offence and, as a result. Caufield didn’t have to defend as much (the side of the game that he hasn’t mastered yet).
On the other hand, the diminutive scorer didn’t benefit from an open style of game. He faced a set defence. It didn’t matter. He cut through it. He generated scoring chances not by simply taking what the opposition gave him, but by creating openings, something the Habs have struggled to do since the start of the series.
The key to Caufield’s success? Pace. Extreme pace; fast decision-making, and even faster manoeuvres.
Caufield was never a slow player coming through the Junior ranks, but I wouldn’t have called his type of game ‘‘pacey’’ until this season in Wisconsin. I wrote a few Catching The Torch articles about this leap in his development over the course of the season. But what he did against the Leafs was something else. It wasn’t Wisconsin high pace, it was NHL high pace, the kind of fast play that makes the success of some of the top players in the league.
Boosted by the adrenaline of his first playoff games and his trademark unending enthusiasm, Caufield drew circles around the Leafs, bounced the puck off the stick of teammates, and dashed in between the dots to fire on the net.
The winger has improved his skating over the past two years to the point where it is likely above NHL average, but pace doesn’t only mean footspeed, although it is part of it. What created most of Caufield’s advantages were his first-touch actions, the way he cut the time between his reception and his next play.
Caufield always scans the ice. He knows the positioning of teammates and opponents alike. He knows their routes, how they are approaching him, and he knows what he wants to do with the puck before it comes to him. As a result, he can instantly act as he catches it.
In the video above, you see him immediately dangle an opponent on reception, then prepare his feet and stick positioning to fire off a hip-pocket catch. He also accelerates on first touch, creating instant separation from his check, and/or bumps the puck to a nearby teammate in better position to carry the puck into space, before repositioning to give a new outlet. He isn’t content making just one play; he wants to be at the centre of the offence all the time. He passes to get the puck back in better positions.
I also want to highlight his shot from the middle of the third period.
There is no drawback. He catches the puck in front of him, gets his hands away from his body, and fires quite powerfully using the flex mechanics of the stick. This is a unique skill in the Habs’ lineup.
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect performance from Caufield; he missed some of the plays above and others didn’t lead to dangerous scoring chances, but it was an inspiring one. A glimpse into his large potential. No matter the outcome of the series, this promising flash will stay with everyone in and around the organization over the course of the summer.