Wednesday marks the beginning of the Clarkson Cup playoffs in Markham, Ont. and the Inferno are coming in with their best record yet (15-6-3) as the second seed behind Boston. They face a strong third seed in the Stars, who struggled early on, but found their groove mid-season and pushed hard for the top spot before getting swept by the Blades. The Stars and Inferno split their season series and remained pretty even in scoring and shots for the most part, give or take a couple of three-goal games.
Here's what you need to know about this matchup:
- While the Inferno have qualified for the second time in four years, the Stars are veterans at this Clarkson Cup thing. They've never missed the playoffs, and they've won three Cups (2009, 2011, 2012). They also looked poised to win a fourth last season, but were stunned in the round-robin and did not qualify for the championship game.
- A lot of Montreal's top scorers right now didn't really get going until later in the season, but rest assured, there are quite a few of them. Noemie Marin in particular has had a lot of success, particularly against Calgary -- she has four goals and seven points in six games against the Inferno. She also has two hat tricks on the season (neither of them against Calgary, though). Ahead of her in points is Ann-Sophie Bettez, who won the Angela James Bowl in 2014 as the league's leading scorer on the season.
- Oh, did I mention the Stars also have newly-crowned all-time leading scorer Caroline Ouellette in their lineup?
- Charline Labonte may not be the best goalie in the CWHL statistically, but if it were up to me, I'd give her the Goalie of the Year award. She has a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage with nearly 50 percent more ice time than goalie leader Genevieve Lacasse of the Blades, and she's been consistent all season, keeping her team in games as best she can. Also, technically speaking, her form and movements are the sharpest in the league as far as I can tell. Meanwhile, Delayne Brian has improved from last season, but she'll need to bring her A game, especially if the Stars get started first.
- As for the Inferno, well... you all know the deal. Their offense can certainly hang with Montreal, as they have the first Angela James Bowl winner not on the Stars in the last five years (Rebecca Johnston) in their lineup, along with Jessica Campbell and Brittany Esposito. Blueliners Jessica Wong and Hayleigh Cudmore can also put up points as needed; however, defensively the Stars are the stronger team, having allowed 15 fewer goals this year.
- That being said, Calgary has a great transition game and plenty of speed, so if it can get started offensively quickly and keep the puck in Montreal's end, it'll have a chance to solve Labonte early and get two wins out of this series. The keyword is this: EARLY. They took a while to score in Brampton last weekend, which is something they can't really afford to do against a more seasoned team like Montreal.
- Special-teams wise, the Inferno will need to stay out of the penalty box. They just broke 80 percent on the PK in their final weekend, which is reassuring, but even so, they were just ahead of Toronto in the league standings for being a player down. That won't do against a second-overall PP like the Stars' (just over 20 percent), so discipline is key.
- Game 1: March 4, 1:30 p.m. MST (3:30 EST)
- Game 2: March 5, 5:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.)
- Game 3: (if necessary) March 6, 4 p.m. (6 p.m.)