Cole Caufield celebrated the Montreal Canadiens’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 28 years by munching on a slice of pizza supplied by teammate Phillip Danault Thursday, after the Canadiens eliminated the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
All the while, Caufield’s long-time critics were eating their words.
“I think just proving people wrong is something that I’m just going to continue to do,” the forward had said last week.
Caufield is accomplishing exactly that and has become one of the best feel-good stories of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, leading all rookies with nine points (four goals, five assists) in 15 games.
The Canadiens will play at either the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Islanders in Game 1 of the Cup Final on Monday. The Lightning host the Islanders in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Caufield has heard the same doubts about his game since he was a boy playing minor hockey in his native Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He’s too small (5-foot-7, 165 pounds). He’s too fragile. He’ll never hold up to the physical rigors of the NHL, especially during the playoffs when the amount of hitting intensifies.
His response has been to emerge as one of the Canadiens’ most dynamic players and a key cog in their first visit to the Final since 1993, when they defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games to win the Cup. The most impressive part is he has gotten better as the playoffs have gone on.
In the Stanley Cup First Round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Caufield had one assist in five games. He added three assists in Montreal’s second-round sweep of the Winnipeg Jets.
The 20-year-old’s production continued to increase against the Golden Knights. He scored five points (four goals, one assist), and his spectacular goal in the second period helped the Canadiens to a series-clinching 3-2 overtime win in Game 6 at Bell Centre in Montreal.
Though many observers have been surprised at Caufield’s rapid ascension, former NHL forward Tony Granato, his coach at the University of Wisconsin, is anything but.
“Not at all,” Granato said. “He’s prepared himself for this. No moment is too big for him. He’s worked his whole life to be in this situation.”
He has done it with a chip on his shoulder.
Caufield was selected by the Canadiens with the No. 15 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. He was considered one of the most gifted offensive players available after finishing the 2018-19 season with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 squad with with 100 points (72 goals, 28 assists) in 64 games. His goals total marked an NTDP record, surpassing the 55 goals center Auston Matthews, now with the Maple Leafs, scored in 2014-15.
Granato said one of the things that drives Caufield is showing the hockey world that he should have been selected higher.
“Some of the great players in sports find success by finding ways to motivate themselves,” Granato said. “Michael Jordan was that way. Wayne Gretzky too. I played with ‘Gretz’ with the Los Angeles Kings and he was always looking for an edge.
“Cole looks at where he was drafted and figures he had equal, if not more, talent than those picked before him. He figures those 14 teams ahead of the Canadiens went for bigger players, and that thought alone helps spur him on.”
Caufield won the 2021 Hobey Baker Award as the top men’s player in NCAA Division I ice hockey. He led NCAA Division I in goals (30), points (52), power-play goals (11), power-play points (24) and shots on goal (165) this season and was named Big Ten Player of the Year.
He agreed to a three-year, entry-level contract with Montreal on March 27 and scored five points (four goals, one assist) in 10 regular-season games. He was a healthy scratch for the first two postseason games but has maintained a prominent role in the lineup ever since.
Linemate Nick Suzuki said the confidence Caufield has at such a young age is infectious.
“Kid’s got a ton of swagger,” Suzuki said. “He knows he’s a scorer.
“He’s was a little disappointed that he didn’t get to start against the Leafs but he’s handled that well.”
Suzuki pointed to Caufield’s verbal exchange with Vegas goalie Robin Lehner as proof.
After stopping Caufield’s attempt to go five-hole in the third period of the Golden Knights’ 2-1 overtime victory in Game 4, Lehner said the scouting report showed Caufield had a penchant to either shoot high or between the legs.
“I think that’s a good thing that he’s thinking about what I’m going to do,” Caufield said. “So I’m just kind of taking that into the next game. It’s good that he’s kind of opening his mouth.”
Caufield’s on-ice response; scoring high on Lehner in Game 6.
“I just shoot for the back of the net,” Caufield said. “Some people maybe overthink it. I think that’s all fun and games what was going on between him and I, but I’m always shooting for the back of the net.”
With Caufield’s production continuing to increase, his cult status is as well.
Moments after his goal in Game 6, fellow Wisconsin alum J.J. Watt, a defensive end with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, sent his support on twitter: “well, well, well ….” he wrote via @jjwatt beneath a photo of Caufield celebrating.
As the Canadiens celebrated the victory, Caufield looked up into the stands at the 3,500 fans at the Bell Centre, some of whom were wearing his jersey. For a kid who had been doubted for so long, it was further proof his hockey journey continues to gain prominence.
“This city has been the best so far,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep making them happy.”