The weekend featured two interesting battles -- one between the top two teams in the league, and the other a revival of the GTA rivalry.
Calgary and Les Canadiennes split their series, again, leaving the teams stagnant in their first and second spots, respectively. But Brampton swept Toronto, and they now trail the Furies by just a point in the standings.
News and Notes
Calgary's Hayeley Wickenheiser -- an icon in Canadian hockey and in women's hockey in general -- announced her retirement on Friday. She won four Olympic gold medals and is the country's all-time leading scorer at the senior level, with 168 goals in 276 games. Last season, she won the Clarkson Cup with the Inferno.
With their win, the Inferno became the first team to clinch a playoff spot.
Brampton's Courtney Birchard played in her 100th game over the weekend.
The CWHL caught up with Toronto's Renata Fast for a Q&A.
Les Canadiennes assistant coach Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreaux said Catherine Herron played instead of Charline Labonté this weekend so Herron could see some playing time.
Sportsnet has started broadcasting scores from CWHL games.
Calgary Inferno vs. Les Canadiennes
In another rematch of last year's Clarkson Cup, Les Canadiennes and the Inferno met to determine the best team in the league. The first game was close, with Calgary winning in overtime.
"We stuck together," Calgary head coach Scott Reid said. "As a group, we had some adversity and the [players] didn't let it bother them, they didn't let it phase them, and they just showed what kind of people and teammates each of them are to each other."
That contest began with an Inferno lead, but Les Canadiennes responded with three goals in the first to take a 3-1 lead. Calgary scored twice in the second, but Les Canadiennes added a goal to keep the one-tally lead as the third approached. With eight minutes left, Calgary's Jill Saulnier tied it. Brianne Jenner netted the game winner.
Calgary tabbed Geneviève Lacasse for the start and she stopped 26 of 30 shots. Catherine Herron protected the net for Les Canadiennes and made 22 saves.
"Our compete and our battle levels have increased," Reid said. "The will to want to win; not only the first effort, but the second and third efforts have been there and they're starting to get better. The game is made up of winning one-on-one battles all over the ice, so if we can get into those battles and compete with second and third efforts, it's just going to help us out."
It was not nearly as close the next night. Ann-Sophie Bettez scored twice twice in the first to give Les Canadiennes' a 2-1 edge. That score held until the third when Cassandra Poudrier and Marie-Philip Poulin put the game out of reach. Herron again started for Les Canadiennes and posted 23 saves, while Emerance Maschmeyer stopped 23 shots for the Inferno.
"We had speed, we played with speed, we played physical and we wanted to win," Les Canadiennes assistant coach Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux said.
"We feel good after this weekend. [It was] a good team win and we had to bring it all to win and we did on Sunday, so we're happy."
Brampton Thunder vs. Toronto Furies
Saturday's match between Brampton and Toronto was also a back-and-forth scoring affair. Rebecca Vint and Natalie Spooner scored in the first frame to leave the teams deadlocked at first intermission.
The second frame saw four tallies, and two were from Spooner to give the forward a hat trick. Jamie Lee Rattray and Jess Jones also scored, leaving the teams knotted at 4-4 as the third approached. With time expiring in regulation, Jones continued her hot streak and netted the winner with 21 seconds left. Erica Howe made 17 saves, while Christina Kessler made 19 stops.
"We continued to play hard, we continued to play our style of game, we fought through a lot of things even though scoring was a bit of a problem for us," Toronto head coach Sommer West said. I think we just continued to dig down and try to do what we want to do and at the end of the day it just didn't work out. That's too bad for us."
Sunday's game followed with much less scoring. Laura Fortino and Courtney Birchard potted goals through the first two periods as Liz Knox made 29 stops in the win.
Kessler, who has been splitting time with Sonja van der Bleik, made 37 saves in the loss.
"She played well. I think she would admit she didn't play to the best of her ability, but she also fought really hard after she let a weak goal in," West said. "She battled for the team, and again, I think, first weekend back might've showed a little bit of rust even with the team itself, but we're not worried about her. I truly believe that she'll bounce back and she'll be the backbone of this team, because that's who Christina is."
"We're starting to come around as a club and I think as long as [the goaltenders] continue to play well we're going to win a lot more games," Brampton head coach Tyler Fines said. "But they've been fantastic."
"She worked hard on her fitness, she still has a passion for the game, and she's been able to make the players around her better." -- Brampton's Tyler Fines on Jess Jones
Three Up, Three Down
↑ Ann-Sophie Bettez: The forward has been unstoppable lately. She is on an eight-game point scoring streak and a five-game goal-scoring streak. She posted six points (three goals and three assists) over the weekend and has scored 20 points over her last eight games. She has netted eight goals over her last five. She is now third in the league in scoring, just two points behind teammates Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin.
"She's been working out all summer and she also was working out during the break," Breton-Lebreux said. "She is just an incredible player. She's always been in the top CWHL players since she's been in this league, and I think this year she's even better. She's on fire, she's gained a lot of maturity. Of course she's playing with Marie-Philip and Caroline, but she is a very, very good player. Out there, she was the best player on both teams."
↑ Natalie Spooner: Spooner's offensive production has cooled down a bit this year, but the forward netted a hat trick on Saturday.
"This weekend, she was shooting the puck more and [when] she decided she was going to shoot she was dedicated to that shot," West said. "She kept her feet moving a lot more and the big thing for Natalie is, when she uses her line mates, that really opens up her game."
↑ Brampton's defense: I mentioned Spooner and her hat trick, but the Thunder still did a good job of limiting Toronto's offense. The Furies only scored Spooner's three goals on the weekend and were shut out on Sunday.
"Our defense played really well," Fines said. "We were able to contain Spooner in game two and ultimately our goaltending also helped us out and won us two games."
↓ Toronto's offense: Outside of Spooner, the offense struggled this weekend. The team received a big boost from having healthy players, and that has translated to on-ice production, but it was certainly a down week for the Furies.
↓ Brampton's discipline: Penalty trouble is a common issue for CWHL teams, but the Thunder took the most penalties over the weekend. They gave up six power play opportunities to the Furies on Saturday and another six on Sunday. However, the Thunder penalty kill was perfect on the weekend.
"[We need to work on] discipline, staying out of the penalty box," Fines said. "Also just being a little bit smarter with the puck and make better plays."
↓ Calgary's power play: It's hard to find a weakness for a team like the Inferno, but their power play production has struggled. On Saturday Calgary failed to convert on five chances, followed by a 1-for-4 effort on Sunday.
Boston Blades vs. Brampton Thunder: January 21 at 5:00 PM; January 22 at 11:30 AM (Eastern Time) at Walter Brown Arena and Boch Ice Center
Calgary Inferno vs. Toronto Furies: January 21 at 8:00 P<; January 22 at 12:30 PM (Eastern Time) at MasterCard Center - Rink 1
(Photo credit: Céline Gélinas/CWHL)