PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Tanouye/Canadian Women's Hockey League
"I was staring at the score, and I was like, I can't believe we just lost 8 to 3. It doesn't reflect the season," said Les Canadiennes' Charline Labonté after she surrendered 7 goals to the Calgary Inferno in the Clarkson Cup Final.
She's right -- it doesn't. But it does reflect the team that the Calgary Inferno were able to become, and how Les Canadiennes perhaps weren't expecting this game to be as tough as it was. Here are some notes on what made the difference in the Clarkson Cup Final. You can read the play-by-play recap of the Inferno win here.
As I noted in my practice day recap, Rebecca Johnston had the potential to be the spark plug for the Inferno, and she was, scoring the first goal less than three minutes into the contest. "I think that really gave us momentum, just getting that first goal was definitely key for us," Johnston said. She added a second goal in the third period, the team's seventh of the night, after capitalizing on a turnover at the Inferno blueline. Johnston also added two assists when she set up both of Brianne Jenner's goals, including a crucial one on the power play in the first period that put the Inferno up 2-1. Johnston's return seemed to take everyone else around her to the next level at a crucial time, and that was never more apparent than in the final game of the season.
Shots and quality chances
This game featured a lot of dangerous scoring opportunities, and Les Canadiennes outshot the Inferno by a large margin of 41 to 26. But almost all of the Inferno's shots came in dangerous situations -- when the puck was in the Montreal end, the Inferno were taking it relentlessly to both the slot and the net. In contrast, a lot of Montreal's shots, especially late in the game, were coming from the outside, as Calgary established a strong forecheck. Les Canadiennes tried to rely on their positional game and finesse to create scoring opportunities, and it cost them. "We had to catch up a little bit, so we took a little more chances that we would not take usually," said coach Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux after the game.
The 2-on-1 rushes and turnovers allowed the Inferno to tell that story fairly well. The key to this for the Inferno were players like Jill Saulnier, Brianne Jenner, and Erica Kromm, who forced those turnovers and blocked shots.
But when called upon, Delayne Brian was outstanding, and played the finest hockey game of her career en route to being named MVP of the Clarkson Cup Playoffs. Brian was not only in position the majority of the time, but moved quickly to recover when she found herself out of position. Even though Les Canadiennes' presence in her crease was minimized by a strong defense, Montreal's skilled lineup continued to throw pucks at her all night, and very few of Brian's stops could be characterized as "routine." There were plenty of moments throughout the game when a goal could have gone in and been part of a comeback for Les Canadiennes. It's not often that you can say that your goaltender had to be your best player in an effective blowout, but Brian was essential to the win over a team that had a lethal offense and could have come back at any time.
"There were points in the game when Montreal was outplaying us, and they had numerous chances to score and get right back in the game. So, the way [Brian] played was phenomenal and she kept us in the game," Blayre Turnbull said of her netminder after the game.
"It's been a long time since I've won something, so it feels awesome," Brian said, who hasn't been on Team Canada since the U18s (she is now 25). And on the celebration after the final horn, when Bailey Bram leaped into her arms and the two ended up at the bottom of a pile of Inferno players: " I know that me and Bailey fell. We got squished. It was all worth it."
"Sometimes you can steal it as a goalie and sometimes you lose," Labonté said. She lost, and badly. It's hard not to focus on where the game might have turned if she had been able to come up with a big stop when the game was 2-1 or even 4-2. But to her credit, many of those shots were coming from world-class athletes who had perfect opportunities to shoot the puck, and they took them. Les Canadiennes didn't seem prepared defensively for what the Inferno were able to do to them, particularly along the boards and at the bluelines; as a result, when Labonté was seeing the puck, it was often undefended and coming from high-risk areas of the ice. Still, Labonté is the kind of goalie who can steal difficult games. She just didn't steal this one.
Blayre Turnbull said that her style of play is "not too flashy" -- but you might not agree if you saw her shot, which is pretty incredible, and was good for 2 goals in the Final. Turnbull is definitely the kind of player who surprises, though, as she has a knack for suddenly being in the right place at the right time to start a quick transition.
"I think the most important thing is that we got the team win and that's what really important to me. We won as a team. It wasn't an individual effort by any means," Turnbull said. But her scoring in this game was a real backbreaker for Les Canadiennes, especially her goal (set up by Hayley Wickenheiser), which put the Inferno up 5-2. That was the point of no return.
"Blayre Turnbull has been a pleasant surprise all year long," coach Scott Reid said. "We knew she was a great player, and as the year's gone on, she's gotten better. And that's showed with her making the World Championship team as well."
A long wait
"We have a variety of players, a lot of vets who have been around for many years. We hadn't got past the first round, and I think it was just so exciting especially for those players to be around that long and see that transition and change within five years of that team, going from last place to winning the Clarkson Cup," said Rebecca Johnston after the game.
Delayne Brian mentioned her goalie partner, Kathy Desjardins, who has also been around for a while. Desjardins took the net in relief of Brian in their last game of the regular season against Brampton, getting the win in a 5-4 game. Desjardins sat on the bench as backup for the entire Clarkson Cup playoffs, and last year's captain Kelsey Webster only played the first game of the Brampton series. But getting those players and other veterans on the ice to raise the Clarkson Cup was strong motivation. Les Canadiennes talked a lot before the Final and postgame about how they play for each other as a family, but the Inferno did as well. This is the emotional, non-journalistic takeaway from the game, but it was just special to see, especially after the way that the semifinals went down last year for Calgary.
"I mean, there's girls on the team who don't play very much. Like, we had two girls sit in the stands for this game. And it feels nice to win for them," said Blayre Turnbull, referring to Kelsey Webster and Rhianna Kurio, who were scratched in the game.
"We've got a police officer, a teacher, a lawyer, and you know, for those girls to win a championship like this... it means a lot to them," added Hayley Wickenheiser, who is winning her first Clarkson Cup after a long and storied career including four Olympic gold medals, 7 gold medals at Worlds, and and 10 gold medals at Four Nations. "I've pretty much won every championship except for this one," she said. "I was thinking about those players... That's why this league matters."
"Last year we didn't score one goal on [Labonté] in 2 games," Delayne Brian said, referring to their back-to-back shutout losses to Montreal in the 2015 semifinals, when Charline Labonté repeatedly made highlight-reel saves to earn the wins. "I think we kind of made up for it this year."
After the game, Caroline Ouellette said that on paper, Calgary was the team with more talent. "And we were able to have success this year because we played well as a team," she said of Les Canadiennes in contrast. However, I think Ouellette sells the cachet of her own team short -- many of her teammates would not be out of place on Team Canada, and the particular absence of Ann-Sophie Bettez from the national team roster was widely perceived as a snub. Les Canadiennes have been waiting for a while, too, to win the Clarkson Cup again, having last won as the Montreal Stars in 2012. While some veterans on the team may be nearing their retirement from professional play, Les Canadiennes seem likely to visit the Clarkson Cup Final for the third straight year. The winningest team in CWHL history probably won't be waiting much longer for their fourth Clarkson Cup.
The single-game Clarkson Cup Final drew some criticism after the game for two reasons. First, the players believed they deserved a best-of-three series for the Clarkson Cup; also, the one-game Final creates a single-game media spectacle, which in turn decreases exposure for the great hockey that is the CWHL playoffs.
Caroline Ouellette said, while clearly looking like she would rather be lacing up her skates for Game 2: "We deserve a best of three in the final, like we did in the semifinal. That's one thing that's disappointing. But that being said, it's not an excuse. We weren't good enough today to win. And Calgary deserved the Clarkson Cup."
And when Hayley Wickenheiser addressed the media, she spoke directly to the number of mics in her face: "It's good to see all of you here. But -- more than just one game," she said, chiding a bit gently. It spoke volumes that almost every player who entered the interview room said, "Wow!" or "Whoa," when approaching the scrum. Not all of them are used to this -- and perhaps they should be.
"We had to gradually get better all year, as a group, and we just had to peak at the right time, and I believe we peaked at the right time," Scott Reid said.
There was indeed no better time to peak than in a one-game final for the Clarkson Cup.