It's come down to the final game of the CWHL season, and the Calgary Inferno have a chance to make history with their first ever Clarkson Cup.
After sweeping Brampton in the Clarkson Cup semis two weeks ago, the Inferno are headed to Ottawa to face off against the team that has had their number all season, Les Canadiennes de Montreal. (If you haven't already, check out my Q&A with Jared Book of Eyes on the Prize earlier this week, here on Matchsticks and Gasoline and on EOTP.)
Montreal took the league by storm this season, only losing three times in regulation (twice to Calgary) and taking the season series with the Inferno, four games to two. The return of Marie-Philip Poulin to the CWHL added a huge boost of offense to their lineup, and the continued dominance of Caroline Ouellette and Ann-Sophie Bettez, paired with the development of players such as Kim Deschenes, has made Montreal's offense incredibly intimidating to go up against. Combine that with a strong defense and the world-class talent and precision of Charline Labonte, and you have a team that could very well win its fourth Clarkson Cup in franchise history Sunday.
However, things have been clicking at the right time for the Inferno, and with a loss in the semis to Les Canadiennes (then the Stars) last season, they'll be looking to exact some revenge. Here's the head-to-head matchup:
Previous Series: Les Canadiennes outmatched and eventually overpowered the fourth-seed Toronto Furies, winning by scores of 5-1 and 7-1 on Jan. 26-27. They utilized a complete game, with a near-perfect power play and superb play on both sides of the puck. Meanwhile, the Inferno were challenged hard by the Brampton Thunder, but also managed to sweep their series, 4-2 and 4-3, showing an improved patience on defense and the penalty kill and diligence with the puck, as well as getting two great games from Delayne Brian.
- These are two deep, Olympian-laden offenses, with Montreal having forced the most goals of both the regular season (114) and the playoffs so far (12). Moving Caroline Ouellette off the top line helped spread the wealth a bit, and all of the top six -- Poulin between Deschenes and Bettez, Ouellette with Noemie Marin and standout rookie Katia Clement-Heydra -- can sting the Inferno if given too much time and space. This offense is strong on the puck and with its passing, but it can also utilize some speed to catch a goaltender off guard in transition. Poulin leads Les Canadiennes with a whopping 11 points against the Inferno this season. She's got perhaps the best hands in the league and will almost definitely burn an opposing defender one on one, so keeping defensive pressure on her (without making her the sole focus) will be key. Bettez can also make great plays, as evidenced by her eight assists against Calgary, and Ouellette has had multi-point games as well.
- Meanwhile, the Inferno's offense is nearly all speed, with Rebecca Johnston, Brianne Jenner and Jillian Saulnier up front, as well as Blayre Turnbull, Jessica Campbell, and Brittany Esposito down the lines. The rookie duo of Saulnier and Turnbull has provided really great secondary scoring, particularly in the playoffs (three points each in two games). Saulnier's first multi-point game in the CWHL came Feb. 13 against Les Canadiennes, whereas Turnbull hasn't had too much of an impact in the regular season series, but is turning a page now in the postseason. Campbell and Esposito are both streaky scorers, but both can use speed and strength, particularly in the corners and in front of the net. And we all know what Johnston and Jenner can do with the puck, especially Johnston, who can and will drive around, over and through you to get it to the net. The key will be to crash hard early and often on Charline Labonte, who has allowed more than two goals just twice this year against Calgary.
- Montreal's defense has shown a penchant for jumping into the play and providing some offensive support. Julie Chu has obviously been a big part of that, having played both offense and defense, but Lauriane Rougeau and Cathy Chartrand have also put up good numbers this season (Rougeau with 19 points, Chartrand with 15). This defense has also been the strongest in the league, allowing the fewest goals all year (36 in the regular season, 2 against Toronto in the playoffs).
- Calgary's blueline has been a work in progress, but it's improved with the addition of all of its players to the lineup. Brigette Lacquette has moved the puck well and provided an excellent booming shot from the point, while Meaghan Mikkelson-Reid and Erica Kromm have displayed good positioning and defensive prowess, especially under pressure, in the playoffs.
- In the battle of Labonte versus Delayne Brian, statistically Labonte has been the winner all year. She just picked up her second Goaltender of the Year Award in two seasons for her exemplary play, and she was almost right on par with her save percentage from last year's regular season (.925 compared to .927). She's also posting even better numbers in the postseason (.933 so far).
- However, so is Brian, who struggled with inconsistencies and a shifting blueline, but has gotten it together in time to post a .905 save percentage compared with her .890 in the regular season. She was the most focused under tremendous pressure from the Thunder late in Game Two of the semis, when Calgary was clinging to a one-goal lead, remaining poised in net and stoning players like Jamie Lee Rattray and Jess Jones en route to moving on to the Final. Against an even stronger offense, she and the skaters in front of her are going to have to be completely dialed in.
- Calgary's tendency to take penalties could cost them Sunday's championship, should they repeat what they did against Brampton (14 penalties total, averaging seven per game). Though the penalty kill was smart, resilient and aggressive, and Brian stopped everything she needed to stop while down a skater, Montreal's power play (40 percent in the playoffs thus far) is an entirely different animal from Brampton's. Les Canadiennes can cycle and pass extremely well, and once they find an opening, they will take it. It's up to the Inferno to not even give them the opportunity -- move your feet, swallow your frustrations and stay focused.