So the Inferno take on Les Canadiennes Sunday, and there's a lot to unpack here. Two Olympian-laden teams, both with potent offenses, one with an even better defensive situation -- and it all comes down to one game.
To break down some of the basics regarding the Inferno's opponent, Matchsticks enlisted the help of Jared Book of Eyes on the Prize, SB Nation's Canadiens site. Here's his take on what has made Montreal so successful, both against Calgary and in this playoffs thus far -- and what might help them win the Clarkson Cup.
Les Canadiennes are a team that's had Calgary's number for most of the season, winning four of six. What do you see as the key reason(s) for their success against the Inferno?
Sweeping both games in Montreal was the difference in terms of the season series. But also, Montreal's ability to bounce back in Calgary. They lost the opener both times they went to Calgary, but both times won the second game and allowed Calgary to one goal total in those two games.
Obviously in a one game situation, that bounce back doesn't really matter. But Montreal having a solid third line with Jordanna Peroff, Leslie Oles and Emmanuelle Blais is the key factor against Calgary's insane forward depth. Peroff and Julie Chu were missing in the last series against Calgary, and that made a significant difference especially since Calgary got Rebecca Johnston back.
Charline Labonte has had a statistically great year, allowing the fewest number of goals yet (29) and only 13 in six games against the Inferno over the regular season. How much does she factor into this game, and what role does her defence play?
She's a huge factor. The two losses Montreal had against Calgary, Labonte wasn't at her best and she'd likely admit that herself. When she's on, she's great and probably the best goaltender in the league.
The defence plays a huge role, and it's not the one you may think. Montreal allows the least amount of shots and while that's good for a team, Labonte generally would rather facing shots more regularly. When you don't face a lot of shots and then the people taking them are Johnston, Jessica Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser, it's not the easiest job.
That top line, though... Caroline Ouellette, Marie-Philip Poulin and Ann-Sophie Bettez can arguably be called the best top line in the CWHL. How do you stop them if you're the Inferno?
They are even harder to stop since they moved Ouellette off of that line. (Author's note: Whoops, definitely operated under the impression they were still together -- thanks for the clarification! -AR) Kim Deschenes has been great with Poulin and Bettez. Ouellette with Noemie Marin and Katia Clement-Heydra has been great as well. Both lines are able to score and if you focus too much on one, the other one will hurt you.
I'm not sure if you can stop them, maybe just minimize their impact. Poulin went pointless in the last two games against Calgary and that will need to repeat itself.
Aside from that first line, who on Les Canadiennes do you think should be on the Inferno's radar on Sunday?
I mentioned their top six and they are quite important and could break out at any time but I think another key will be Montreal's third line. Peroff, Blais and Oles have gotten opportunities to score and are very solid defensively as well. You can't beat Calgary with only two lines. This line is very important and can step into the spotlight.
Montreal's special teams have been head and shoulders above the rest of the league all year, and that hasn't changed in postseason -- 40 percent on the power play against the admittedly overmatched Furies. How do you think they will do against an undisciplined, yet effective Inferno squad?
You don't want to give Montreal power plays. With Ouellette, Poulin and Bettez with Julie Chu and Lauriane Rougeau, there are many ways they can hurt you.
If you watch Montreal's power play, no one ever stays in the same spot for long. They are in constant movement with the puck and without it and it gives teams a lot of trouble.
On the penalty kill, they are even better. They allowed three power play goals in 80 chances this year and actually scored five shorthanded goals. They play Poulin, Ouellette, Marin and Bettez as the forwards on the penalty kill. Imagine the pressure that puts on the opposing power play when one mistake, one bad pass can turn into a breakaway or 2-on-1 going the other way, and with those talented players to boot.
Overall, what do you think will be the deciding factor Sunday evening: offence or defence?
I think Montreal's defence is the key here. If they can shut Calgary down, and Charline Labonte is up to her normal tricks, I think this Montreal team can score a goal or two to win it. That's much easier said than done though as Calgary's forward depth is so, so good and their defence is good as well.
Offensively, both these teams will have chances and get goals. But the team that shuts down the other best will win this game.