The two top teams in the Canadian Women's Hockey League took to the ice at Ottawa's Richcraft Sensplex Saturday afternoon for a skate ahead of Sunday's Clarkson Cup Final.
Les Canadiennes de Montreal and the Calgary Inferno practiced on separate rinks simultaneously, each with the goal in mind of getting loose and getting the legs going. The mood on Les Canadiennes' rink was relaxed and jocular, with plenty of chatter and not an overwhelming amount of structure; on Calgary's ice, there was the occasional cheer, but certainly more of a serious edge and a structured layout. (All quotes in the forthcoming bullets were obtained Saturday, so players/coaches are speaking in terms of next-day competition.-AR)
- Les Canadiennes' assistant coach Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux said the team feels no pressure coming into the matchup: "We're just gonna keep doing the things we've been doing well and make sure we play within our limits, bring that emotion if needed, but stick to the game plan as much as possible."
- Montreal forward Leslie Oles took part in the "rebound game," a drill on backup netminder Sydney Aveson that looked a lot more fun than it should have, in her words. "I think that went a little far," she laughed. "It's a pretty simple game, but we kind of adapted it to make it a little more fun... I think that's one of the biggest parts is managing having fun and composure at the same time. We've been having fun all year, so it's just a matter of doing the same thing."
- Charline Labonte took part in a power-play drill with Julie Chu, Lauriane Rougeau, Ann-Sophie Bettez, Marie-Philip Poulin and Caroline Ouellette that focused mainly on quick, crisp puck movement high to low. That unit has been especially effective all season and into the playoffs, and could get some opportunities in the final game if they can get under Calgary's skin enough. "We want to work very hard to draw penalties, definitely," Ouellette said. "You want to be that team that works so hard that the other team has to take penalties on you, and it's in our hands."
- Poulin said the power play was a "key component" of Les Canadiennes' game heading into tomorrow, emphasizing the need to capitalize on any chance. "They have a great PK, they know the game, and for us we're going to have to move it quick and do our thing," she said. "That's what we've been trying to do all year, and to keep building from that."
- Les Canadiennes' two regular-season losses to Calgary came on the Olympic-sized ice surface at Winsport, but the Final will be played on an NHL-sized rink (the Ottawa Senators' arena). Will that be an advantage for Montreal? "Not an advantage... I think it's just gonna be regular for us, but thank God it's not on the bigger surface," Breton-Lebreux quickly clarified with a laugh.
- Labonte knows many of the Inferno's top six, having played with them on the National Team, but she doesn't think about that as an advantage -- or at all. "I know their tendencies, I know their skills, but I'm not going to think about, 'Oh, Jenner likes to do this move on a breakaway,'" she said. "You can't think. As soon as you start thinking, if she pulls a new move, you're gonna be like, 'What the...?' I need to be ready for absolutely everything with them."
- The Clarkson Cup loss to the Blades last season isn't something Montreal players are going to think about tomorrow, but getting back to the Final for redemption was in the back of the mind of more than one. "That [getting back to the Cup] was my main goal," Labonte said. "For me, it left a bitter taste in my mouth last year, but we have a chance to be here this time against a really good team and it's going to be a great show."
- On Calgary's end, while the atmosphere seemed more businesslike, everyone agreed keeping it light was the main focus. Passing drills, particularly cross-ice passing, and rushes up ice were a theme during practice, as the emphasis on speed by the Inferno was made incredibly clear. There was also a neat zone exit passing drill, which has been a sticking point with Calgary for much of the year.
- Meaghan Mikkelson, Hayley Wickenheiser and Elana Lovell all mentioned that the team knows at this point what the keys are to winning, so getting loose and enjoying the last practice of the season was paramount. "At this point, you're not really working on anything -- you're just fine-tuning, making sure everyone feels good and the energy is high," Wickenheiser said. "I think we're a fairly happy, confident bunch at this point going into tomorrow."
- The term "Game Seven" popped up among several Calgary players, who agreed that a situation where winner-takes-all is the name of the game means the Inferno have to come out from the jump and play a strong, complete game.
- Mikkelson's perspective on what the Inferno need to win: "I think the biggest thing for us is making sure we’re consistent, playing a full 60 minutes, and everybody doing their job, playing their role... I think our challenge all year long has been playing that full 60 minutes and making sure that we don’t have those breakdowns. So we’re looking forward to that for tomorrow, for sure."
- Solving Labonte has been tough for any team, but a particular test for Calgary's deep offense. The Inferno forwards emphasized getting pucks to the net, getting traffic in front of her and getting her moving.
- Brianne Jenner was all business when it came to her National Team teammate. "I've played with her in the past, I think she's a great goalie, I have a lot of respect for her," she said of Labonte. "But we're not going to let that get into our heads."
- Veteran D Kelsey Webster was asked what new fans of the CWHL will see when they tune in or come to Canadian Tire Centre on Sunday: "Speed. They’re going to see a lot of speed. Puck movement is huge with us, and I think it’s a very hard game to play against if you’ve got tape to tape passes and high speed hockey, so that’s what they can expect throughout this entire league, not just the two teams that are playing tomorrow. I think that we’ll get people returning, who come to that game tomorrow."
- Head coach Scott Reid's plans for a pregame speech? "I got a few tricks up my sleeve," he said with a smile.
Puck drop is at 2 p.m. MDT (4 p.m. EDT) at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa. Viewers in Canada can watch via Sportsnet, and everyone can catch the Final on CWHL Live's streaming service.