The CWHL's Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes held their final practices before the Clarkson Cup Final game at the Richcraft Sensplex in Gloucester, Ontario. The teams will face off Sunday at 4:00pm at the Canadian Tire Centre, home of the Ottawa Senators, to compete for the Clarkson Cup.
"We're going out as Les Canadiennes and we're not changing anything," said Montreal coach Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, pointedly, on their strategy for the final game. They won't be changing any lines or making any major adjustments: why do that when everything has worked well so far? This didn't make for interesting media scrum fodder, but it was evident on the ice at practice that Les Canadiennes are having the times of their lives.
Still, Breton-Lebreux is acutely aware of the challenges presented by the Inferno. "Calgary, well, they have a lot of power forwards. They have strong lines, they have speed, so we're going to have to be ready for that quick transition," she said.
Charline Labonté's immediate reaction when asked about Calgary planning to put lots of rubber on her and get traffic in front? "Perfect! Finally!" she said, with a huge smile on her face. Labonté looks forward to those shots, and that is perhaps why she is so difficult to beat. No shooter intimidates her, and she doesn't think about who they are or what they are about to do.
"Someone told me: Don't you think a matchup between Montreal and Calgary is like a goalie's nightmare? and I said, actually it's a goalie's showcase! That's how I see it," Labonté continued. "Just bring your game, and it's going to be me against Brian, and I'm sure she's excited as well. She's a great goalie, I respect her, she's a good person, and it's true--in the end, our position can make a difference. So that's what I love."
Rookie Leslie Oles spoke to the consistency that the skaters have had all year in front of their world-class goaltender, and again, on how there really isn't anything they have to do differently: "I don't think there's any pressure at all. There's nothing really we have to change. If there was anything we had to change, maybe we'd be a little bit more nervous. Things have been pretty consistent all year, and I don't see why they would change now."
This sentiment was echoed up and down the lineup, including by Caroline Ouellette, another national team veteran who was part of the team that fell to the Boston Blades last year. Her advice to newcomers to the CWHL championship was simple: "It's normal to be nervous, you've waited for this for so long, you've worked so hard for this moment. We get to play in an NHL building at the Canadian Tire Centre. You just use the off-ice and on-ice warmup to get ready, get loose, feel good about yourself, and remember that it's the same game.... We just have to play the same way with the same confidence," she said. "Everyone needs to be good and our team will be great."
The Calgary Inferno, too, had a very loose practice, but there did seem to be one concern: beating Charline Labonté. The Inferno's game plan necessitates getting traffic in front of the woman who is arguably the best netminder in her sport. The added wrinkle being that this year, not only has she been superb, taking home Goaltender of the Year honors at the CWHL awards, but she has also faced the fewest shots thanks to the defense in front of her. And the offense -- Les Canadiennes' transition game has often meant that the puck is simply at the other end of the ice.
But the Inferno have Rebecca Johnston in their hip pocket. Johnston returned late in the season to make an immediate impact, and she's fresh, without the fatigue of the whole season behind her. "I've definitely had a different view this year. It's mostly been directed towards getting better, rehab, and just trying to stay positive," Johnston said after practice on Saturday. "Coming back I think it's just been so much fun. I feel like I have that excitement right now that maybe other people are a little bit getting on the more exhausted end of the season."
Johnston may indeed be the team's spark plug heading into the Final, and teammate Brianne Jenner commented that they've been better as of late, finishing the season on a strong note. "I think we had a little lull after January, but we've been able to regroup in the last month or so and just play some of our best hockey that we've played all year," Jenner said.
Last year, Kelsey Webster wore the "C" for the Inferno. Webster is a defender whose contributions often don't show up on a game sheet, but she is quietly solid defensively, and her experience speaks for itself -- the 29-year-old Duncan, BC native has been playing for Calgary since 2011, back when they were known simply as CWHL Alberta. She told me after losing to Montréal in the semifinals last year that she believed they would be raising the Clarkson Cup in 2016. "I wanna stand by what I said... If we work hard and shoot the puck and play like we know how to play together, then that's ours," Webster said yesterday. As for their gameplan? "Solid defense is going to be huge against this team because they do have a strong forward lineup and defensive core for that matter. So just playing a solid game, making sure they don't get clean entries... If you can't clean up your d-zone, how are you going to get in the offensive zone?"
"It comes down to one game, and we've traded wins and losses, so it will be a close game," Hayley Wickenheiser said. Wickenheiser joined the Inferno this year, after having intermittently been a member of their predecessor, the WWHL's Calgary Oval X-Treme, between 1997 and 2008. The offseason roster additions for the Inferno, from Wickenheiser to Jenner to Elana Lovell (who took home Rookie of the Year honors), give them a diverse mix of veterans and new blood.
Lovell, when asked if she was thinking about her individual honors heading into the Clarkson Cup Final, made it seem like it was furthest from her mind: "Honestly that's a huge accomplishment personally, and I'm really honored to have been named up there with all those other girls. But, tomorrow's just another hockey game and we're focused on the team game," she said.
And Calgary's coach Scott Reid is aware that his depth may be called upon to pitch in, with the top lines of each team fairly evenly matched against each other: "Sometimes you get caught playing top lines against top lines, so that's when you need depth to help you out... It's just one of those things to see how the game's going and see if our depth is going to make the difference or not."
Both teams have offensive superstars in their lineups, but a theme throughout the post-practice interviews was defense and the willingness to get those "dirty" goals with traffic and hard work. Don't be surprised if you see Marie-Philip Poulin capitalize on a turnover and bury a clean wrist shot, but at the same time, players like Rebecca Johnston are going to be fighting through bodies to get shots off as well. The teams have come to this point with slightly different styles and slightly different strengths, but a matchup of this caliber comes down to details. It's going to be a great one for the Clarkson Cup.