Having the best regular season record has not of late been an indication of postseason success in the CWHL. Last year, regular season champs Montreal were stunned 8-3 by the Calgary Inferno in the Clarkson Cup Final. This year, the Inferno's record-setting 20 wins didn't mean much when they hit the ice against Les Canadiennes.
The game started tentatively as both teams got a feel for each other and Charline Labonté and Emerance Maschmeyer both made some early saves. A theme of the afternoon was scrambled play in the neutral zone as both teams struggled at times to maintain puck possession, but the ice gradually started to tilt in Montreal's favor.
Two back-to-back hooking calls on Jessica Campbell and Bailey Bram set up the first goal. Calgary players fumbled the puck on zone exits, leading to desperation plays on both calls trying to prevent Montreal shooters from going to the net. On the second call to Bram, Les Canadiennes capitalized, as Katia Clement-Heydra was able to cut to the net and flip a backhander past Maschmeyer to put the Inferno up 1-0.
Before the period was over, Calgary would have a chance to tie the game after a slashing call on Sarah Lefort, but it was a lackluster PP for them as they passed up several opportunities to shoot. They went to the locker room down a goal and trailing in shots, 5-12.
About five and a half minutes into the second was the point of no return for Montreal. After a neutral zone turnover, Marie-Philip Poulin used D Hayleigh Cudmore as a screen and rocketed a shot on Maschmeyer. It flitted through Maschmeyer's glove and trickled across the goal line slowly. It was a lucky goal for Poulin that took Maschmeyer by surprise, but even the weird ones count and it was 2-0 for Montreal.
From that point forward, Les Canadiennes became a defensive machine. The Inferno strategy had to be to get traffic in front, and Montreal countered that by preventing traffic from reaching the front of their goal and keeping Calgary players pinned along the boards for huge portions of their shifts, as well as forcing turnovers at the blueline and never allowing the puck carriers to have any space to enter the zone. It was a battle for the Inferno every step of the way; and while they steadily amounted shots, they were rarely getting several in succession. Calgary's defenders seemed to have trouble holding the puck in at the line to keep momentum going in a shift.
In the third period, the Inferno found their legs again, but they were already in a hole as they pulled ahead in the shot count.
They finally broke through thanks to a perfect pass from behind the net by Rebecca Johnston to find Jill Saulnier in front, who tapped the puck past the Montreal netminder to cut the score to 2-1. With over seven minutes to play, it seemed like there was just enough time.
But, the comeback was thwarted when Jessica Campbell was penalized immediately after for tripping, and Calgary was again stuck killing a penalty. They did manage perhaps the best shift that either team had all game about halfway through the third, holding the puck in the offensive zone for nearly two minutes and even forcing Labonté to give up a couple of big rebounds, but her teammates were also cleaning up her crease and blocking shots -- at least three enormous blocks in the third period can be credited to Caroline Ouellette alone.
Yet again the Calgary defense failed to hold the puck in, though, after Maschmeyer was pulled to the bench, and Poulin was skating through the neutral zone looking at an empty net. She didn't miss, and 1:52 wouldn't be enough for Calgary to score again.
For the first time ever, Charline Labonté raised the Clarkson Cup and was also named MVP of the playoffs. For the first time in five years, Les Canadiennes de Montreal are Clarkson Cup champions. For some players, such as Emerance Maschmeyer, Brianne Jenner, and Marie-Philip Poulin, this game was one championship to chase before shifting their focus to the Women's Worlds and Olympic centralization with Team Canada. For other players, like Charline Labonté and Caroline Ouellette and Julie Chu, this could have been their last shot as players to win the CWHL championship, or a championship of any kind, before moving on to other roles. Les Canadiennes put a big exclamation mark on the 2016-17 season -- not just by winning, but by winning with this group of players. A lot will change in the CWHL heading into the next Olympic cycle. But for now, there is some time to celebrate and reflect.
Check back tomorrow and the rest of this week for more quotes and insights about the Clarkson Cup Playoffs and the CWHL's season.