The fourth meeting of the season between the Winnipeg Jets and the Canadiens with Montreal still without a win heading into the game. It was also the first game for Carey Price with Sean Burke as his goaltending coach, even though they have only been able to do Zoom calls together considering Burke is still in quarantine because of COVID-19. Still, a coach can work on video in this process, and one would hope that Price has been able to learn from the new voice in his ear. The Saturday night affair saw the Canadiens play their best game since the first ten of the season with a commanding 7-1 win.
- New head coach Dominique Ducharme has been slow to make line changes since beginning his tenure behind the bench. Perhaps he wanted to concentrate on system changes first to not overload the learning ability that each person has in them to incorporate the new. But he did make one major change for this game and did it work. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who is a passer, was given the two best shooters. The future was given a chance to be the present and Kotkaniemi passed his test with flying colours. The still 20-year-old won his first eight face-offs. He was extremely strong reading the play defensively, and he sparked his line to the first two goals of the night. Josh Anderson counted first, which was his tenth goal of the season. Tyler Toffoli scored the second goal, which was his 15th goal of the season. Kotkaniemi got an assist on the first tally. He was everything that the Habs could have hoped for giving him this assignment. This is one of the best moments of Kotkaniemi’s career. He was given the top role instead of 13 minutes, and he rose to the challenge.
- Philip Danault is taking a lot of heat for not scoring in over one calendar year. It’s deserved because that’s a long time in hockey terms for a guy getting 20 minutes a night. Perhaps not carrying the burden of being the number one centre helped, because relegated to a secondary role in light of Kotkaniemi’s promotion, Danault had his best game in a long time. His two passes to Brendan Gallagher for goals were outstanding. The second assist was sublime as he did a spinner-ama and put it right on the tape of Gallagher for his 10th goal of the season. That would usually be the team lead, but with Toffoli and Anderson on the team, Gallagher is quietly tied for second.
- Brett Kulak is someone it seems no one talks about. Excellent. If Kulak is outstanding, then all he is doing is making quiet and smart decisions all game every game. The pairing with Alexander Romanov might be the best on the team. This could have something to do with assignments, of course, with the pairing not facing the best lines of the opposition, but it might just be that they’re making great decisions and playing superb. Kulak and Romanov should both be with different partners though, as these puck movers should each be with a stay-at-home defender. While it is working as they are playing so well, they could be even better. It’s a puck-moving defenders league now. Both these players look good and their excellence should be spread out.
- Nick Suzuki has become a little subdued on offence, but quietly, he is turning into an intelligent centre in his own zone. It’s remarkable to see how the long struggle is turning around finally at the centre position. In the last years, the Canadiens tried Jonathan Drouin at centre, but he did not succeed. They tried Max Domi at centre and he too did not succeed. Both just didn’t seem to have the instinct at the NHL level to make the right plays; to be in the right position to take care of their defensive assignments. Suzuki made so many smart decisions in this game. Just quiet moments where he is supporting the puck carrier to help get it out of the zone, or help diffuse pressure. Kotkaniemi with the same dynamic. Danault, of course, almost always with this dynamic of smart defensive decisions. It is wild to see the Canadiens win the middle of the sheet so profoundly considering how many years we have watched never seeing this happen. Ever.
- Right from the get-go it was clear that Carey Price was ready. He tracked the puck well and looked like he was working hard to get set for each moment that may or may not come to him. He reset his position a lot more than he has in the recent past. Puck moves five feet left. Reset. Puck moves five feet more left. Reset. Puck moves into the corner. Reset. He was just extremely active in his net, making sure that his position was right on his angles, and his position was right in his technical form. All that concentration on trying to be right made him right. Price didn’t look like he was challenged all that much. It looked like he was already there for the puck, instead of trying to get there. One of Price’s favourite answers when asked what were you trying to do on that shot is “just trying to be big”. That’s how it looked. Like he was big. Great start under the new goaltender coach Sean Burke. It’s just one game, but it’s a great start.
- The Canadiens chased Connor Hellybuck for the first time this season. They dominated. It felt like January. It was a goat-free night.
Cole Caufield carried the Wisconsin Badgers on his back Saturday to their first Big 10 championship in 21 years. Caufield scored both goals as the Badgers won 2-1 over pesky Michigan State to lock up the title over Minnesota. Caufield is unstoppable at the college level with his world-class shot into the top shelf. It’s a shot that translates straight to the NHL. It’s unrivalled at the college level, and rivalled against only a select few at the NHL level.
Caufield goes bar down with the greatest ease and consistency. Most of his goals are into the top corners. His ability to find this most difficult of locations is remarkable. He is a phenomenon. Caufield now has 25 goals in 28 games this season. He has heated up even more after an electric first half with an even better second half with 18 goals in the last 15 games.
One is reminded of Kyle Connor who shone at Michigan for the Wolverines when he counted 35 goals in 38 games before joining the Winnipeg Jets and becoming a sensational finisher at the NHL level. Connor managed his outstanding scoring season in his freshman campaign, while Caufield is a sophomore, but don’t forget that Caufield wasn’t exactly weak in his first season either at college.
Caufield seems a lock for the Hobey Baker Award after the two goals led to a championship for the Badgers. Dylan Holloway, also on the Badgers, should be a finalist as well. He is a product of the Edmonton Oilers, and may just have the better pro career when we have decided on that down the road. The other finalist will likely be a goalie who plays in Minnesota, either Jack Lafontaine or Dryden McKay.
Fans are always wondering how good will Caufield be at the NHL level — because of his size, there is always that question mark. This is why he was taken at 15, considering his goal-scoring prowess. With his shot and ability to finish, he would have been top three, if he were a bigger man.
The truth is we aren’t going to know what kind of pro he will be until we see how able he is to find space against big men. There is no question that he will be successful on the power play. If he gets a chance to shoot, it will go in the net. It’s as simple as that. The shot is world-class. He will also be successful at 3-on-3 hockey. When it is a track meet, Caufield will be Usain Bolt out there. He will be the player that the Canadiens have needed desperately for years.
However, to get to the power play and the odd game that goes 3-on-3, you have to be successful at 5-on-5 in some capacity. Most of hockey is played 5-on-5, so that will be where he writes his ticket or does not.
He will have to be able to find space. He needs to hunt for dead zones and be quiet in them until the pass comes. He doesn’t need to be winning pucks in corners. His line-mates can do that. He doesn’t need to be the best defensive player, only be not costly. He doesn’t need to win face-offs. He only needs to keep this very simple.
It all comes down to this: get the shot away. If he takes the shot, the shot is going in. He fired nine shots in the game Saturday afternoon. One sequence last weekend, he took four shots in six seconds. One of those four shots was from the side of the net in the corner that he tried to bank off the goalie’s head and in. He can put the puck exactly where he wants to put the puck. If he shoots, he scores.
He has also developed tremendously his vision and passing this season. He has developed a feint that confuses goalies and defenders where they respect that shot so much, but then he feeds, with his head down showing shot, to a teammate, and the pass leads to the easiest of goals. He’s developing many techniques to be an offensive force.
With that said, let’s not get confused what is the big question: Can he get the shot away at the NHL level? Can he find the space? Whether he becomes a successful 5-on-5 NHLer all comes down to that.
Don’t bet against him. He’s been written off before and all he does is be the best player in college hockey. Instead of accepting the fate that he was not blessed with size, he refutes it, carries his team on his shoulders, goes bar down, pumps his fist, and celebrates a division title.