After the Montreal Canadiens advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993 on Thursday evening, there was a tendency to attach a mystic quality to their achievement, in lieu of exploring their unconventional, widely unexpected playoff run.
Montreal wasn't expected to beat Toronto, let alone sweep Winnipeg, before suffocating the Vegas Golden Knights in six games after finishing 18th overall in the regular season.
But the time to attribute the Canadiens' run to pure luck has long passed, as they've adapted parts of their identity at a dizzying pace. Labeling the Canadiens a "team of destiny" is to seek refuge from examining the quantifiable reasons behind their unlikely path to the Final.
The point of demarcation, from when the Canadiens evolved from an anemic offense, devoid of genuine scoring touch, to the doorstep of a title can be traced back to Cole Caufield's somewhat inauspicious debut on April 26. Keeping track of time during the pandemic often feels non-linear, if altogether impossible to track at all, and yet Caufield's debut clearly delineates two different versions of this Canadiens team. It took until Caufield's fourth NHL game to get on the scoresheet, but since May 1, he hasn't looked back.
Some have made the argument that the Canadiens ranking second in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage (according to the indispensable Natural Stat Trick) during the regular season should've been enough of an indicator that they were capable of producing better results than their win-loss record indicated. Using 5-on-5 team CF percentage as a lone evaluation metric can be misleading, however, and one could argue that looking at the splits — individual and team — since injecting Caufield into the lineup, creates a more telling portrait.
On first glance, the advanced numbers don't blow you away, but Caufield's playoff percentages are better than the Canadiens' overall playoff numbers as a whole. The decreased share of Corsi for at 5-on-5 is a testament to the escalated caliber of post-season opponent, along with Montreal's strategy to sit back and counterattack throughout the first three rounds.
Caufield's superior expected goals for against Montreal's overall number is most significant, indicative of his superior shot creation ability, with his speed, positioning and innate goal-scoring senses allowing him to attack from optimal positions on the ice, more often than not.
The data points can be boring, so this ends the Spock impression. Let's get into the fun stuff and the highlights.
Caufield straight up dominated against the Golden Knights, with four goals and an assist in six games, none better than this Game 6 tour-de-force, where he eluded Brayden McNabb in one fell swoop, making his opponent look like he was stuck in quicksand before roofing it past Robin Lehner. Most players would've run out of real estate to get their shot off, but that's what separates Caufield from almost every 20-year-old on the planet: a remarkable ability to score from everywhere, even under duress.
There are a handful of players in the league that can make that play, but it's even more impressive that it's coming from a rookie who just finished off his NCAA career at Wisconsin in March, leading all collegiate players in scoring with 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games. After slipping to the 15th pick in the draft, Caufield instantly made 14 teams regret their decision, and he's been a prolific scorer at every level of his career. Caufield's high-end skill was very likely going to translate well in the NHL, but even the most optimistic Canadiens supporter couldn't project this type of impact, this quickly.
Caufield was the MVP of the 2019 IIHF World Under-18 Championships, and in August 2019, during the World Junior Summer Showcase, I wrote the following about him: "It’s way too early to make a definitive declaration, but don’t be surprised if Montreal Canadiens prospect Cole Caufield emerges as the steal of the first round from the 2019 NHL Draft."
This isn't meant to be self-congratulatory, it's merely meant to pinpoint that Caufield's jaw-dropping goals have been part of his lore, even during the infancy of his career. Caufield's shot is his defining attribute, but he can also casually separate from defenders too. You have to account for Caufield during any rush attempt as soon as he enters the offensive zone, as his underrated acceleration and lethal shot makes him a top-tier weapon that the Canadiens were sorely lacking prior to his promotion.
Montreal was characterized for its lack of scoring touch during the regular season. No longer. Caufield has arrived ahead of schedule, and this isn't a matter of destiny — it's top-tier talent rising to the occasion and elevating their team when the stakes are the highest.
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