Young King Cole is a Merry Young Soul

After the 4-1 victory over the Las Vegas Mar-a-Lagos Tuesday evening, the cameras followed Cole Caufield as the Canadiens celebrated.

            There was no real reason for it. Caufield had scored another sniper’s goal, this one on a hard, quick shot off a feed from Corey Perry but three other Canadiens had scored and, as usual, it was goalie Carey Price who zipped this one shut.

            Caufield wasn’t even the only youngster to score. The Canadiens also got goals from his fellow 20-year-old, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and 21-year-old Nick Suzuki, who from his vantage point as the wily veteran could say of Caufield after, “the kid has got a ton of swagger.” Make that swagger and joy, an irresistible combo.

You could hardly blame the producers or the cameras for following Caufield. He has a grin like a 7-year-old on Christmas morning. You just know Caufield was the pain-in-the-ass boy who had the whole family up to open presents at 4:30 and was on the ice with his brand-new stick by six o’clock.

            If nothing else, smiling Cole Caufield is a welcome change from smirking Auston “Porn Stache” Matthews, who is tracked by the HNIC cameras like a million-ton asteroid bearing down on Toronto.

Somehow, despite his status as a newly minted NHL sniper, Caufield is right at the core of this unforgettable Canadiens run. The scoring is part of it, obviously. Caufield is tied with veteran Las Vegas defenceman Alex Pietrangelo with three goals, and he leads the series in expected goals scored.

What matters more, however, is that Caufield has made the game fun again – fun for everyone. Teammates, casual fans, media types, even crusty old columnists who have seen it all and will bore you to death about it if you give them half a chance. By now it’s pretty clear that simply having Caufield around (and Kotkaniemi and Suzuki, who share his success and his infectious joy at playing the game) takes a lot of the pressure off the veterans who have carried the load too long.

Somehow, Caufield doubles as both mascot and star. It has to be impossible to play with him and not have fun – and let’s face it, Canadiens hockey has been pretty short on fun since 1993. This team has been able to bounce back from setback after setback, in part because the collars are not too tight. They began the postseason with zero expectations and after 11 wins they’re one game away from the Stanley Cup finals.

            On March 26 – still a smidgen less than three months ago – Caufield played his last game for the University of Wisconsin, a 6-3 loss to fabled Bemidji State that eliminated the Badgers from the NCAA tournament. After a two-game pit stop with the Laval Rocket that included three goals and an assist, Caufield joined the Canadiens.

            Sort of.

            While the club endured games such as a 5-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on April 10 in which they managed all of 19 shots, Caufield watched. It was April 26 before Caufield got in a game, a 2-1 win over the Flames in Calgary in which he had 15 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time and no points – but a telling four shots on goal.

            It was May 1 before Caufield picked up his first goal in his fourth NHL game, an overtime game-winner against Ottawa. Two nights later, he did the same to the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs – but no one slips into the league without growing pains. He was a minus-2 with zero points in each of the next two contests, against Ottawa and Toronto again, and he finished the regular season with four goals and a single assist in 10 games.

            Despite sitting out the first two games against Toronto, Caufield now has 14 playoff games under his belt, four more than his regular season total. He is growing with every series and every game and it’s easy to forget that he won’t even be a rookie until next season.

            Thanks to every player on this roster, the Canadiens are now one game away from the Stanley Cup final, a level they haven’t reached since the 1993 Stanley Cup. (The 2010 team made it to the Eastern Conference Final against the Philadelphia Flyers but lost in five games and the 2014 club won two games after the Chris Kreider crash that wiped out Carey Price but lost in six.)

            That already makes this improbable pandemic postseason the Canadiens most successful playoff run in 28 years – and the feeling here is that they aren’t finished. One win in the next two games (quite possibly at home on St. Jean Baptiste Thursday evening, in a contest that has unrivaled potential for a postgame riot.)

            The Canadiens are a game away from winning their third straight series, this one against the heavily favoured big boy Golden Knights. It’s a legitimate lead – without the horrific refereeing of Chris Lee and Dan O’Rourke through the two games here they might already have won. They’re out-hitting, outskating and flat out-playing Las Vegas and when they get the even-handed officiating they got from Kelly Sutherland and Eric Furlatt Tuesday, they’re almost unbeatable.

In 50 years tracking this team, I’ve seen good teams, bad teams, mediocre teams. I’ve never seen a Canadiens team that was more fun to watch, or more resililent. They’ve faced down everything from Lee and O’Rourke to having their coach sidelined by the COVID-19 protocols and they keep on winning.

            At the heart of it, grinning from ear to ear, you’ll find “Goal” Caufield. One more win, and the guy who was playing against Bemidji State in March will be lighting up a Stanley Cup final.

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