Caufield, college stars add 'young energy' to NHL playoffs

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FILE - In this May 24, 2021, file photo, Florida Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight (30) stops a shot on the goal by Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) during the first period in Game 5 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Sunrise, Fla. Knight went from playing in college to making an impact on his team at the most important time of the year. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

When the Montreal Canadiens were one goal away from being eliminated in the first round, and then again when they were one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup semifinals, Cole Caufield set up the overtime winner each time.

Caufield was dominating college hockey just two months earlier and suddenly at age 20 had become a key player for the NHL's most storied franchise. Along with Colorado forwards Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta, and Florida goaltender Spencer Knight, Caufield's success jumping right into the playoffs fresh off playing a full college season could inspire more teams to infuse fresh blood into their lineups at the most intense time of year.

“Any team that’s gone through a year is looking for some sort of spark, some sort of hope,” said Tony Granato, who coached Caufield at Wisconsin. “There is nothing better for a lineup than young energy entering the locker room and being able to add some speed and young legs into the lineup. Every team needs it.”

There's no doubt the Canadiens needed Caufield. They are 7-1 since he joined their lineup. Montreal's transformation was so remarkable even NFL All-Pro J.J. Watt noticed.

“Caufield has been an absolute playmaker since being added to the lineup,” Watt tweeted. "Great call by whoever suggested that.”

That would be coach Dominique Ducharme, whose trust of Caufield developed gradually. While Caufield's 52 points in 31 games at Wisconsin propelled him to win the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA's top player, those didn't matter much when transitioning through a quick stint in the American Hockey League and joining the Canadiens in April.

Caufield put up five points in his first 10 NHL games and has four important assists in the playoffs, but the 5-foot-7 dynamo showing he could hang in the pros was about more than producing offensively. Former NHL scout Dave Starman said Caufield is more confident than ever handling the puck in his own zone, and the commitment to becoming an all-around player hasn't gone unnoticed by his coaching staff.

“Any time we bring up a detail with or without the puck or we talk about something on his game or the team game, he really pays attention and you can see if he gets back in the same situation, he will react differently,” Ducharme said. "He’s really committed to his game and to the team, so putting him on the ice and seeing how he gets better on those little things every time he steps on, that’s how as a coach you gain more and more confidence."