Canadiens’ Caufield finding offensive touch again under Martin St. Louis

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Cole Caufield’s face said everything.

It was a power play goal that cut the Capitals’ lead to 4-2 — a game that Montreal would end up losing. But you could see the relief within Caufield now that his 18-game goal drought, which dated back to Nov. 26, was over.

That Feb. 10 goal in Martin St. Louis’ first game as interim Canadiens head coach was the start of this current scoring tear for Caufield, which has seen him net five goals and eight points in six games.

Following Monday’s 5-2 win over the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens find themselves winners of three straight, something they haven’t done since sweeping the Jets in the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In fact, that series was the last time Montreal won consecutive games, period.

Things are improving for Les Habitants right now, and that was almost expected. Many teams get that “new coach bounce” when a different voice arrives behind the bench. But for Caufield, it may have been a lifeline during a season where the preseason Calder Trophy candidate struggled, dealt with COVID-19, and spent time with AHL Laval.

Caufield idolized St. Louis and wore No. 26 as a youth player to honor him. They’re also both smaller players and have had to continually prove themselves. Caufield lit it up offensively for the U.S. National Team Development Program and then at the University of Wisconsin before waiting until No. 15 for Montreal to draft him in 2019. St. Louis famously went undrafted out of the University of Vermont, got cut after two seasons with the Flames and went on to have a Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Lightning.

Increase opportunity

St. Louis has seen the potential that lies within Caufield and is allowing him to flourish. After averaging 14:42 of ice time in 30 games under Dominique Ducharme, Caufield has played 16:49 a night in six games since St. Louis took over, including 32 more seconds on average of power play time. His eight points under St. Louis matches what he recorded while Ducharme was in charge this season.

“I think he trusts me,” Caufield of St. Louis said after scoring a goal and assisting on two others in Monday’s game. “He’s putting me out there in situations to succeed and I’m playing with two great players too so that helps. He trusts my game and I think that’s the biggest part for me. I just gotta keep playing the right way and it’ll keep going like that.”

St. Louis wanted to spark some of his key offensive players who were struggling, so he put Caufield with Josh Anderson and Nick Suzuki — an important trio moving forward for the franchise. So far they’ve clicked, a vital development since the coaching change.

Anderson’s game is much different than Caufield’s and Suzuki’s. He can drive to the net in a north-south style, while the other two create scoring chances with their movements in the offensive zone.

“With all the backpressure that there is these days, it’s hard to keep playing fast all the time and not trying to slow up for anything,” Caufield said. “So just kind of keeping the puck moving forward and timing yourself to be in the right spot for support, and then always be moving around the zone so you can find yourself open in more areas.”

“It’s important that these guys know that someone is looking out for them to not get manhandled on the ice,” St. Louis said. “What I like about Andy is his speed, obviously his size, but he can play the game too. It’s not just about adding size, you have to add someone who can complement them and someone that can stop the play.”

Playing without the puck

One of St. Louis’ coaching philosophies is the importance of your play without the puck. Find the spot on the ice where you’ll create a scoring opportunity, and that will lead to more touches of the puck. The way Suzuki and Caufield can move in the offensive zone plays into that.

“It’s a big key to the game,” Caufield said. “If you look at the stats and stuff, you don’t have the puck for a lot of the time you’re on the ice. So if you can be successful without the puck, stay over top of guys, be in the right position, find yourself at the right time in the right spot, I think that’s when you get more touches. I think that’s what he’s going to preach going forward, the better you play without the puck, the more touches you’ll get.”

When young players are finding their way in the NHL, it can be hard to develop if they’re constantly scared to make mistakes. Will I see my ice time cut? Am I going back to the AHL? Those are all thoughts when players hit a wall and the good times come to a halt. It was a perfect start for Caufield’s NHL career when he joined the Canadiens after leaving Wisconsin last April. He scored four times in his first 10 games and then picked up four goals and 12 points during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. But it took Caufield 13 games to get his first goal of this season and then another 18 to get his second — the power play tally against Washington.

The errors will happen. When you’re a skilled player, the more high-risk plays you attempt, the more mistakes you’ll make. But the payoff is worth it and will outweigh the turnovers that come over time.

St. Louis is allowing Caufield to play his game, mistakes and all, because in the end, the Canadiens will reap the benefits.

“It’s just to reset his mental side,” St. Louis said. “He’s playing free. He makes mistakes on the ice, of course. I also made mistakes on the ice. But he does many more good things than mistakes, so as a coach, you have to live with the mistakes as long as the good things are there.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

    Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

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    TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

    The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

    The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

    The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

    The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.