Everyone thought the series between Brampton and Calgary would go three games, for sure. In the regular season, the Thunder had played the Inferno to the wire, prompting all sorts of questions about advantages and tiebreakers should their records end up identical in the final weekend of play.
But Rebecca Johnston had other ideas. She scored the game-winning goal with 7:33 left in the third period to help her team sweep the Thunder and head to its first-ever Clarkson Cup Final, to be held March 13 in Ottawa. The Inferno face off against Les Canadiennes de Montreal, who also swept their series against the Toronto Furies.
Unlike Friday's contest, which saw the Thunder put up a total of two shots on goal in the first period, Brampton came out flying and stayed that way through two periods, crashing Delayne Brian's net early and moving well through the neutral zone. Still, it was Calgary who struck first, as a shot from the point by Meaghan Mikkelson-Reid banked off of a Thunder player in front of Erica Howe, making it 1-0.
Sarah Edney tied the score briefly on a strong rush by Brampton, but Bailey Bram would answer, floating a high shot over Howe's shoulder moments after an uneventful power play for Calgary to make it 2-1. Then, another power play opportunity featured some beautiful puck movement between Rebecca Johnston, Jillian Saulnier and Brigitte Lacquette. Lacquette's ensuing bomb from the blueline gave Calgary a 3-1 lead.
A tightly played second period featured more skater-down situations by the Inferno, who had the good luck of running into a hapless Brampton power play (0-for-7 Saturday, 0-for-14 overall). After killing off all three penalties in the frame, Calgary allowed a goal by Courtney Birchard off of a faceoff late to pull the Thunder within one, moments after Brian had robbed Jamie Lee Rattray of a wide-open net with her glove.
Brampton entered desperation mode in the third period, becoming aggressive in their own end and executing a relentless forecheck in Calgary's zone. Their mounting frustration also showed through a couple of shoving matches in front of the net post-whistle. That intensity looked to be paying off; midway through, Rebecca Vint tied the game on a rush, making it look as though overtime was a given to decide the winner.
And then, Brianne Jenner found a hole in the defense, springing Jillian Saulnier on a 2-on-1 with Rebecca Johnston. Saulnier made a great centering pass to Johnston, who made no mistake.
These teams are evenly matched on paper, and Brampton showed it could compete on the ice as well. After the Johnston goal, the Thunder executed great zone entries, challenged the Inferno's defense to every loose puck along the boards, and peppered Brian with shot after shot. But in the end, not registering a single power play goal in seven attempts -- especially with Vint, Rattray and Laura Fortino on the roster, among others -- is not going to win you a series. Brampton's inexperience with playoff pressure also showed in this game; the final minutes of the period saw them miss at least a couple of point-blank chances in front of Brian, one on a gaping net (much like Friday night). In comparison, Calgary executed poise and control in their own zone for the most part, being decisive but careful with their decisions with the puck.
That said, Calgary also has work to do. Their offense has shown up at the right time, and their special teams were able to handle Brampton's, but Montreal (who steamrolled Toronto 7-1 in their second game to make it to the Final) is an entirely different story. Both of their special teams were tops in the league this regular season, with their power play at almost 23 percent and penalty kill at a whopping 96 percent (plus five shorthanded goals forced). The playoffs haven't been any different -- they're at 40 percent on their skater-advantage right now, which means Calgary has to focus and keep out of the box. After all, Rattray and Fortino are dangerous enough; Poulin, Ouellette and Bettez have nightmare potential for the Inferno should they be as undisciplined in the Final.
Calgary must also focus on one more aspect of Les Canadiennes: their goaltender. Charline Labonte was the most valuable component of a low-scoring Montreal squad last year, and now, with even stronger skaters in front of her, she'll be difficult to beat. The Inferno will have to find a way to get to her early as well as stymie the formidable top line Les Canadiennes have put together.
Stay tuned for more information on the matchup, whom to keep an eye on, and what the difference-makers might be in Ottawa, with continuing coverage of the Clarkson Cup leading up to the final on March 13.