The final weekend of regular season play was nothing short of eventful. Several Olympians re-joined CWHL teams and the standings saw some surprise shifts.
Les Canadiennes de Montréal swept the Calgary Inferno and, with a little help from Vanke, who upset Kunlun 6-4 on Saturday, claimed the Chairman's Trophy as the regular season champions. Markham swept Boston to clinch the final playoff berth; meanwhile, the Rays and Red Star split their series.
Montreal (#1 seed) will host the Thunder (#4) and Kunlun (#2) will play the Inferno (#3) in the best-of-three semifinals, which begin Friday. The winners will advance to the Clarkson Cup Final on March 25 at the Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.
Around the League
- Olympic all-star Laura Fortino announced her return to the Markham Thunder, who now have all three of their Olympians back.
- U.S. Olympian Hilary Knight signed with Les Canadiennes de Montréal.
- Canadian Olympian Lauriane Rougeau announced her return to Les Canadiennes after initially deciding not to play out the season.
- Montréal honored its Canadian Olympians, along with Calgary's Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull, during a pre-game ceremony on Sunday ahead of the team's eighth annual Pink in the Rink game, which supports the Wellness Initiative at the Cedars Breast Clinic.
- Ann-Sophie Bettez of Les Canadiennes scored her 100th CWHL goal and Markham's Jamie Lee Rattray earned her 100th career point on Saturday.
- Montréal's Emerance Maschmeyer earned her sixth shutout of the season on Saturday, which ties her with Kunlun's Noora Räty for the single-season shutout record.
- The Boston Blades hosted a Lupus Awareness Game on Sunday.
- Noémie Marin of Les Canadiennes was credited with two goals on Sunday and surpassed teammate Caroline Ouellette for sole possession of the all-time CWHL goal-scoring record, with 133.
- Les Canadiennes captured the Chairman's Trophy as regular-season champions, and the Red Star's Kelli Stack won the Angela James Bowl as leading scorer.
Calgary Inferno vs. Les Canadiennes de Montréal
Canadian Olympian Lauriane Rougeau, who had initially said that she would not play for the club this season, announced her return just prior to Saturday's game after attending practice on Thursday. Rougeau, who says that her broken nose sustained in Pyeongchang is healing well, explained that Caroline Ouellette had been asking her to return and that the primary reason behind her change of heart was to help Ouellette win another Clarkson Cup in what may be her final season.
"Ever since I came back basically, in Montréal, she's been texting me, texting me," Rougeau explained with a laugh. "I told her no, and then this week she was really on me and I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to do it for you,' because that's my last time to play with my idol growing up. She's such a great role model and it might be her last season, so for me it was a no-brainer to come back with the team. It's also an opportunity to win another Clarkson Cup. We have a great team here, I believe in this team, and I'm excited to see where it will go."
"I'm pretty persistent when I love someone and I care about them," acknowledged Ouellette. "It's true, I didn't let up. I'm glad that she accepted, and she looks like she's having fun -- I hope so, because we're glad to have her.
"I feel like I play with my friends, and she's part of that. It's certainly not easy coming back from the Olympics and returning to play. She took some time for herself, and I just kept checking in from time to time to see how she was doing. I'm so happy she came back because she's a huge asset to our team. She can do it all in every situation -- power play, PK, 5-on-5, she's excellent -- so that's a huge asset for our team moving forward."
Sarah Lefort opened Saturday's scoring with 1:34 to go in the first period.
After a scoreless second in which Montreal outshot its guests 14-4, Erin Ambrose tapped in a power-play goal -- and found herself in the back of the net with the puck -- at 1:16 of the third.
"I just wanted to make sure that thing went in there," she joked. "If my whole body had to go in there too, that's okay with me."
Ann-Sophie Bettez followed it up at 5:24, and Cathy Chartrand netted a wide-angle shot just past the halfway point to make it 4-0.
Les Canadiennes were 1-for-5 on the power play and 2-for-2 on the penalty kill.
Goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer stood tall on some late Inferno chances to earn the 17-save shut-out, while Delayne Brian stopped 31 of 35 shots for Calgary.
With the win, Montreal secured home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
"Clinching home ice is huge," said Maschmeyer. "We want to be here first round of playoffs, 100 percent. I think coming off of our trip from China, we didn't really do the damage we wanted to do there, so coming back here we needed to prove to ourselves again and prove to the other teams how strong we are. I think today was the first time in a long time we've played consistently throughout the entire game and so I'm proud of my teammates and I think we played really well."
Sunday's game marked the much-anticipated debut of Hilary Knight. The 28-year-old led the team out for warm-ups and was sent on a rookie lap around the ice.
"I knew it was coming! I'm like, 'Guys, I'm not a rookie, I've played professionally before!'," she exclaimed. "But I'm new here, so you've got to embrace everything and little nuances in the locker room and stuff. It's just such a special thing to be a part of a team, and that's something that I'll always cherish. To have an opportunity to play with this team and the passion that they play with, it's outstanding."
Knight, who typically plays right wing, was slotted in at center on a line with Ouellette and Kim Deschênes.
"I haven't played center in probably 10 years and to play center now was like, 'Okay -- are you sure? Okay!'," she said. "It's an adjustment and I've just got to figure out where they need me. That's why I'm here, is to help them out in the best way that I can.
"It's just a little overwhelming sliding in," she admitted, adding that she's been asking plenty of questions. "But the girls were awesome in embracing me and the coaching staff's been great, too."
Calgary also had some line adjustments, with rookie Sophie Shirley moving up to play with Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull.
"It's actually awesome to be able to have them back here with us and [as a young player], learning from them and taking all the knowledge they have and being able to implement [that] in your own game," Shirley said of playing alongside the Olympians. "[Despite the line changes I'm] just every single shift going out and doing exactly what I've been doing all year, especially for the other girls too, so I think that's the main thing."
Les Canadiennes got off to a quick start with a goal just 62 seconds in off a shot from Bettez (that was apparently tipped by Noémie Marin) to mark her record-setting 132nd tally. Jenner then notched her first of the season with 1:08 left in the frame, which sent the teams into the intermission tied.
Dakota Woodworth put the Inferno ahead at 15:26 of the second, but Marin tied it up with a power-play goal with 41 seconds remaining.
The teams appeared set for overtime when, with just 2:19 left in regulation, Lefort claimed the win for Montreal. An empty-net chance shot wide by Knight nearly added insurance, though it proved unnecessary.
"I honestly didn't know -- I thought the time was running out, so I just threw it," she explained. "I hope nobody judges me for that, I would've gotten aligned if I knew! But Rougeau made a heads-up play and gave it to me, she's like 'Here, take it,' and I'm like, 'Wait, what?!' The girls are just fantastic and it's great to be back on the ice."
Les Canadiennes were 1-for-7 with the extra attacker and perfect on five penalty kills.
Maschmeyer made 19 saves on 21 chances, while Brian stopped 32 of 35.
Markham Thunder vs. Boston Blades
Markham needed just one point to clinch the final playoff spot and made no mistake about getting the job done on Saturday, with an 8-0 win.
Laura Stacey opened the scoring just 4:36 into her return, and Jamie Lee Rattray doubled the advantage at 15:20.
Devon Skeats added another just past the midway mark of the second, and Rattray tallied shorthanded at 17:45 to make it 4-0 after two.
Nicole Kosta scored her first CWHL goal four minutes into the third, leading the Blades to replace Lauren Dahm with Amanda Carridi. Kristen Richards netted a power-play goal at 7:07 and Stacey got her second of the night 65 seconds after that, before Dania Simmonds rounded out the scoring at 11:53.
The Thunder were 1-for-3 with the extra attacker and killed off five penalties.
Erica Howe made 22 saves for the shut-out. Dahm turned away 29 of 34 shots before being swapped out for Carridi, who allowed three goals on seven attempts.
Sunday's contest was much tighter, with the Blades holding Markham to a 3-1 scoreline despite being doubled 50-25 on the shot clock.
Kosta got the only goal of the first period, a power-play marker at 5:25. Kate Leary responded with a power-play goal of her own at 11:58 of the second to send the teams into the third at 1-1.
Rattray put the Thunder ahead just before the halfway point of the period, and Richards sealed with win with 68 seconds remaining.
Both sides were 1-for-5 on the power play.
Liz Knox saved 24 of 25 shots for Markham, while Dahm made 47 saves to wrap up Boston's season.
Kunlun Red Star vs. Vanke Rays
A sweep for Kunlun would've secured the Red Star first place in their inaugural season, but Vanke pulled out its first win of the head-to-head series to play spoiler.
Emily Janiga got the first period's only goal, 2:14 into the game.
Cayley Mercer doubled Vanke's lead at 13:38 of the second, but Zoe Hickel replied 45 seconds later for the Red Star. Emma Woods scored with just eight seconds left in the period to give the Rays a 3-1 lead going into the final frame.
Kunlun replaced starting netminder Noora Räty with Wang Yuqing to begin the third. Zhu Rui narrowed the gap to one at 4:42, and teammate Jessica Wong tied things up not two minutes after that. Kelli Stack netted a power-play goal at 13:20 to give the Red Star their first lead of the game, but Janiga responded a mere 13 seconds later to knot things up. Rose Alleva scored for Vanke with 1:53 remaining and Hanna Bunton pushed in an empty-netter at 18:55 to seal the 6-4 victory.
Kunlun was 1-for-1 on the power play and wasn't assessed any penalties.
Elaine Chuli made 41 saves on 45 shots for the Rays. Räty turned away 14 of 17 chances through 40 minutes, while Wang stopped four of six through 18:45 before being pulled for the extra attacker.
Kunlun came back strong on Sunday, winning 4-0.
The teams ended their season in Boston by icing fully Chinese-born starting line-ups, including goalies Zhang Tianyi and Wang.
Wong put the Red star on the board at 4:42, and Hickel tallied shorthanded at 8:34 to make it 2-0 after one.
Stephanie Anderson increased the advantage 1:58 into the third after a scoreless middle frame, and Hickel rounded out the scoring with her second of the night at 5:37.
Kunlun was 0-for-3 on the power play and 4-for-4 on the kill.
Wang made 26 saves to earn her first career shutout, while Zhang stopped 31 of 35 shots.
For the second year in a row, Les Canadiennes will take on the Thunder in the semifinals. Montreal swept the season series, but all five matches were decided in either overtime or a shootout. The teams have both added some reinforcements since their last meeting in December. Megan Bozek, Jocelyne Larocque, Laura Stacey, and Laura Fortino have joined Markham, while Les Canadiennes have added Caroline Ouellette, Hilary Knight, and Lauriane Rougeau (plus Erin Ambrose, who made her debut during the pair's final series).
"It's going to be an excellent series," said Ouellette, adding that the Thunder have some of the best defense in the world. "They, too, have Olympians who've come back. It's a team that's very physical and very intense and doesn't give you a lot of space, so we have to make sure we're physically ready for those games. It won't be easy, so we can't think ahead to the Clarkson Cup, even though it's our ultimate goal. We've got a tough opponent in front of us before that."
"I'm so excited! I can't wait to see her," said Knight of facing off against former USA teammate Bozek. "She's a tremendous player -- I hope I don't get hit with one of her pucks unless it's to block a goal or something. I'm really excited to see both her and [Kunlun's] Alex Carpenter, because they're phenomenal players and I haven't seen them in a few months."
Kunlun is hosting the Inferno in Markham in the other semifinal. Calgary claimed the season series 3-0-1 and was the only team to amass a positive record against the Red Star. The Inferno have since added Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull, but have struggled late in the season with a road-heavy schedule. They went from Calgary to Markham and back, then to Montreal and back the next week, and are now returning to Markham just four days after heading home. Should they win, they'll face the same schedule next week, as the CWHL Awards will take place on Friday, March 23 in Toronto ahead of Sunday's championship.
"I think we just kind of take it one day at a time, and are just kind of playing every single game like it's our last and giving everything we've got," said Sophie Shirley of the travel burden.
Whereas semifinals in past years have tended to feature some predictably lopsided scorelines, this season's playoffs promise an unprecedented level of parity and the potential for close games.
News and Notes
Commissioner Brenda Andress was made available to media after Sunday's game between Montreal and Calgary. She addressed various topics, including #OneLeague and broadcasting options going forward.
"We totally believe there should be one league. It is what's best for women's hockey, it's what we all know -- all those players playing in the same league would be phenomenal in so many different ways. We've always stated that and we still believe it, immensely. One league is what's best for women's hockey in the future to make sure it grows, to provide jobs for our women, to provide careers for women on and off the ice. I think the players believe the same thing and we believe the same as the players."
"I think that's what we're all trying to work with, is to figure out what's best for women's hockey. It's not really about my league or their league, it's about a business plan that would work and looking at the future to see how it would work. I think that's kind of the position that we have always taken."
On broadcasts and multilingual viewing options:
"We think we believe that next year we'll be able to move into a different kind of venue to ensure that our game is able to be heard in the languages that our fans speak. We've had those discussions and are looking to make it happen."
"Scott Moore from Sportsnet has been outstanding as our sponsor for the last three years when he came on board to give us this opportunity. I know Scott is definitely still on board. I think that he's made some great strides -- as you see, we have women who are doing the commentating and doing the play-by-play, which Scott promised us and there it is, we have women doing that. I think Sportsnet has been always foreseeing the future and making sure that women are seen on TV and providing those opportunities for careers, just like we believe in. I think Sportsnet is definitely behind us."
Coming Up Next
- Calgary Inferno (3) vs. Kunlun Red Star (2) -- March 16 at 7:30 PM Eastern at Angus Glen Community Centre (Markham, Ontario); March 17 at 4:30 PM Eastern at Angus Glen Community Centre (Markham, Ontario); March 18 at 5:30 PM Eastern at Angus Glen Community Centre (Markham, Ontario)*
- Markham Thunder (4) vs. Les Canadiennes de Montréal (1) -- March 16 at 7:30 PM Eastern at Aréna Michel-Normandin; March 17 at 7:30 PM Eastern at Complexe sportif Bell; March 18 at 2:30 PM Eastern at Aréna Michel-Normandin*
(Photo credit: Céline Gélinas/CWHL)