After the final practice for both teams ahead of Sunday's Clarkson Cup Final, Calgary Inferno forward Hayley Wickenheiser said the keys for her squad to win would be goaltending, special teams and who made the fewest mistakes.
In the end, those were exactly the difference-makers for the Inferno, who dominated Les Canadiennes de Montreal from start to finish, 8-3, winning their first Clarkson Cup in franchise history at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.
Rebecca Johnston and Blayre Turnbull scored twice, as did Brianne Jenner (one an empty-net goal with less than a minute to go). Goaltender Delayne Brian had her best game of the season, saving 38 of 41 shots, and the Inferno only drew two penalties but capitalized on both man-up opportunities; meanwhile, Les Canadiennes' top-ranked power play went only 1-for-5, and world-class goaltender Charline Labonte looked very human in net, making 18 stops on 25 shots faced. (Check out the boxscore here.)
How did it happen? How did everything go so perfectly for the Inferno at the right time, while everything for the top-ranked Les Canadiennes went so wrong?
- Calgary scored the first goal. From the jump, the Inferno had offensive pressure and came out with speed and focus, and scoring that first goal (something that hasn't been easy against Les Canadiennes) was a major boost.
- Zone entries/exits. The Inferno's entries and exits were largely smooth and strong, with careful passing upon exits and plenty of speed and strength through the neutral zone and entering the offensive end. On the opposite end, Montreal dumped the puck more than anything else, hoping for its skaters to pick it up once it got to the neutral zone.
- In that same vein, passing was a focus in the Inferno's last practice, and that last-minute prep paid off -- Calgary's passing was nearly impeccable, while Les Canadiennes struggled with connections. The Inferno also made sure to get in the way of pass attempts, whether with the stick or the body -- Jill Saulnier did just that for their first goal by Johnston early in the first period.
- Puck protection. Fewer turnovers, more controlled possession, and smarter decisions overall gave Calgary an upper hand.
- Defensive awareness. The Inferno forwards checked through the neutral zone, hounding every puck (I especially noticed Johnston doing this a lot as the game went on) as long as a Canadienne had it and chasing down loose ones easily. Kristen Hagg and Hayleigh Cudmore also made some excellent plays in their own end, as did Aina Takeuchi.
- Neutralizing the top six. Marie-Philip Poulin, Caroline Ouellette, and Kim Deschenes weren't kept entirely quiet in the first -- in fact, as soon as Calgary had scored that first goal, they were called on a penalty, allowing Montreal to answer back (as one would expect). Everyone expected to see a much different game based on that alone, but the Inferno continued to plug away, using their speed to overwhelm Les Canadiennes' defenders and Labonte.
Poulin said afterward that it was not her best game, adding that the early start by Calgary had Les Canadiennes back on their heels a bit. "We knew they were going to come out hard," she said. "For us, me, Ann-Sophie [Bettez] and Kim tried to put pressure on them, and we had a couple of chances. But Delayne Brian played an unreal game, and I'm happy for her."
Ouellette agreed that the Inferno had a better start to the game than her team did. "When everyone on our team was good, we had a good performance," she said. "Tonight, we simply weren't good enough. Calgary was better, they were faster, they scored on their chances, and we didn't."
- To add to that, despite the one power-play goal, the Inferno were a lot more disciplined than we'd seen them in the series against Brampton. True, they still sent players to the box five times throughout three periods, but the penalties came pretty evenly spread out rather than in clusters (and to be frank, officiating was very lax toward Les Canadiennes in comparison, especially in the first half of the match). However, special teams were strong across the board, with the penalty kill shutting it down four times and the power play scoring on both attempts it had (as mentioned earlier).
- Goaltending. To watch the Clarkson Cup, you would not have thought that Delayne Brian had struggled early on in the season; this was her best game yet. Her pads were nearly perfect, her movement and positioning sound, her second efforts excellent (especially in the third period late, where she pad-saved a shot and then robbed Ann-Sophie Bettez of the rebound with her glove). She used every bit of her body as well, throwing a shoulder or arm to ward off shots, and she allowed very few rebounds, either smothering them with pads or glove or kicking them to the corners.
Brian was humble, crediting the high-powered offense and her blueliners for the win: "When you score eight goals, I just kind of have to do my job on the back end. They were letting me see the puck for the most part, so my team was making my job pretty easy."
- In comparison, Charline Labonte did not have a great outing, allowing seven goals on 25 shots faced (the last goal was an empty-netter by Jenner). The Inferno crashed the net hard all night, making her job a difficult one. The netminder was clearly disappointed post-game, saying she took responsibility for the loss (her second consecutive in the Final).
"This one's a tough one," she said. "I was staring at the floor, saying to myself, 'I can't believe we just lost, 8-3... Last year it was grinding all the time to get there, and this year... it's doesn't reflect the season, it doesn't reflect what it should have been in the Clarkson Cup Final."
- Depth scoring was there for the Inferno when it was necessary. The third line came through, with Sarah Davis and Jessica Campbell combining for a goal just 2:19 into the second period. Rookie Turnbull's performance earned her third star of the game (and a $500 gift card from Gongshow Gear). One of her goals was on a fantastic individual effort, stickhandling around her defender's check and ripping it five-hole on Labonte. She celebrated her second with a joyfully executed dab, saying post-game that someone had actually mentioned to her that she hadn't done it the first time around. "I was lucky enough to get another goal and have the chance to do it, so I did it," she said.
- Resilience and answering Montreal's offense with goals of their own was a big factor as well. Taking away momentum from Les Canadiennes, whether scoring early in the period or trading goals with them, really helped stifle any kind of comeback, and that was something head coach Scott Reid was proud of after the game ended.
"Our girls played with a lot of heart," he said. "Winning one-on-one battles and managing momentum swings, I think that was a big key... Good or bad, you just never know what's going to happen, and the way we managed them today helped us win, for sure.
"Everybody played a role, and we've talked about that all year long -- it's a group. You're not playing singles tennis here, we're in a team sport... We had girls step up throughout the game that got us goals when we needed them. When they scored, we didn't sit back -- we went and got another one, and that just helped us keep the momentum going."