CWHL: Christina Kessler Prepares to Stop Les Canadiennes
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CWHL: Christina Kessler Prepares to Stop Les Canadiennes

CWHL: Christina Kessler Prepares to Stop Les Canadiennes by Jashvina Shah

As Toronto's last line of defense, goaltender Christina Kessler is preparing for Les Canadiennes and the playoffs by watching game tape with her team.

"Hopefully I'll be able to watch every play and be ready for those tendencies," Kessler said. "As a team, we're just really trying to focus on being a unit, whether it's defensive, offensive, special teams. [We're] just really making sure that everyone is buying in and everyone's ready for two to three games."

This has been a difficult season for the Furies, who finished fourth in the league with 14 points. While Toronto earned the last spot in the playoffs, the Furies finished with just six wins.

"Our whole defensive game, that’s what I thought would be our biggest challenge going into the season," Kessler said. "I think that's what has come to realization here. We’re playing against very, very skilled teams offensively."

As a goaltender in the CWHL, Kessler has the challenge of stopping several current and former Olympians, including Les Canadiennes' Marie-Philip Poulin and Caroline Ouellette. Poulin and Oulellete are two of the top four scorers in the CWHL, which includes teammates Ann-Sophie Bettez and Kim Deschênes.

Across the league, it's players like Natalie Spooner, Jamie Lee Rattray, Brianne Jenner, and Laura Fortino who Kessler needs to thwart.

"You look at Calgary, [it has] three full lines of very, very skilled players," Kessler said. "So when you match up against them, you really need to treat your defensive game with priority. I think that has been our biggest challenge this season, and I think we’ve done a good job.

"When everyone is on board and everyone is on the same page, it's a little bit easier for us. But we do have the odd defensive breakdown, which makes the life of a goaltender a little bit more difficult."

The Furies have had to integrate new players with their veterans, and also played the season without two of their top players -- Jenelle Kohanchuk and Julie Allen. Kelly Terry, who was one of the team's top scorers last year, also missed a portion of the season.

While Toronto has dealt with injuries, the Furies have struggled to put together 60-minute efforts in several of the games.

Kessler has made 541 saves, second in the CWHL this year. Last year, Kessler stopped 561 pucks -- the most in the league.

"I've been living this season with the motto 'Expect the unexpected'," Kessler said.

"[I'm] really trying to just zone in on the puck and just expect that nothing's going to go as smoothly as you anticipate it will. There may be some turnovers -- there may be some passes out in front that are cut off by the other team. It's been a big challenge this season, just making sure that you're ready for everything and anything."

The former Harvard netminder, who's been Toronto's netminder since 2012-13, has a better save percentage this season that last season. Her save percentage of .902 is fifth in the league.

"I feel like this year hasn't been particularly the best season for me personally," Kessler said.

"It's just really trying to play with confidence, despite getting one or two goals getting scored against you."

As the Furies get ready for a semifinal set in Montreal, Kessler is prepared for the scoring chances and shots that she'll face against some of the leagues best.

"Some games you might only have 10 shots, but might have three breakaways in the process, and some games you might have 50 shots and have 40 of them really be point shots that you can clearly track," Kessler said. "This season's been a little bit tougher, like there's been quite a few shots and quite a few scoring opportunities. In that sense, I think it's been a little bit more of a difficult season to play.

"Going into [the] playoffs, I think we're really hoping to minimize the high-risk scoring chance on their end to try to keep the goalie's life a little easier on our end."

(Photo credit: Masha/Flickr)