Rookie Caufield turning heads for Canadiens

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield scores past Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner during the second period in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Thursday.

    Montreal Canadiens' Cole Caufield scores past Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner during the second period in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Thursday. The Canadian Press via AP

 
 
Updated 6/26/2021 7:22 PM

Blackhawks fans tuning into the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay and Montreal may lament a couple of veterans who got away in Phillip Danault and Jan Rutta.

Danault, traded to Montreal at the deadline in 2016 in one of Stan Bowman's worst moves, has done a stellar job this postseason helping shut down the top lines of Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas.

 

Meanwhile, Rutta is on Tampa Bay's top defense pairing with Victor Hedman. He was shipped out of Chicago for Slater Koekkoek, who played just 18 games for Edmonton this season.

But if you really want your stomach to turn, pay close attention to the Canadiens' Cole Caufield in this series, which begins Monday in Tampa Bay. The sizzling-fast 20-year-old went 15th overall in the 2019 draft, something that didn't sit well with the Mosinee, Wisconsin native.

He went on to score 49 goals in 67 games for Wisconsin, then signed a three-year, entry-level deal in March.

"Some of the great players in sports find success by finding ways to motivate themselves," Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato told Mike Zeisberger of NHL.com. "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."

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The Hawks selected the 6-foot-4 Kirby Dach at No. 3 overall in 2019 and while few people were suggesting they take the 5-7 Caufield, I did tweet this out a few minutes after he was selected: "I watched a lot of Cole Caufield video today and saw incredible shooting ability, soft hands, quickness and a high compete level. I'd have been tempted to take him at No. 3. Could be another Patrick Kane. Or, at worst, Alex DeBrincat."

Caufield's remarkable talents have been on full display during this postseason, and especially in the semis when he scored 4 goals in six games against Vegas. His last one came midway through the second period of Game 6 when he chipped the puck to himself along the sideboards, outraced veteran D-man Brayden McNabb and roofed a shot over Robin Lehner that gave Montreal a 2-1 lead.

"Kid's got a ton of swagger," linemate Nick Suzuki told NHL.com. "He knows he's a scorer."

Asked for his thoughts on reaching the Stanley Cup Final at such a young age, Caufield said: "It means everything to me, but it means everything to the team. These guys have been playing for a while and this opportunity doesn't come around very often. ... I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy the moment, but it's for the older guys and the guys that have been here for a while."

A second later, Danault slaps Caufield on the back and says, "You're sure a big part of it, though."

They smile and embrace, secure in the knowledge that 4 more wins means a Stanley Cup title.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It will not be easy against the defending champs, but Montreal is steamrolling into the Final having won 11 of 13.

"(Heck) of a team," said Lehner. "Works really hard. Sticks with their structure and they have a lot of great players. Everyone underestimates them."

Just like so many did with Danault and Caufield.

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