For the first time since 2014 -- the last Olympic year -- the fourth seed of the regular season is going to the Clarkson Cup Final. For the past three seasons the playoffs have seen no real surprises, with the top seed winning out. This year, the Chairman's Trophy winners and reigning champions were dispatched in two games, and the 2-versus-3 series took not just three games, but also three overtimes, to decide.
The Markham Thunder swept Montreal 2-1 (OT) and 4-1, and the Kunlun Red Star came back from a 3-0 loss to edge Calgary 3-2 (OT) and 1-0 (3OT).
The Clarkson Cup Final takes place at 12:00 PM Eastern on March 25 at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, Ontario and will be nationally televised in Canada on Sportsnet.
Around the League
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Clarkson Cup Final Preview
It's been a long time coming for the Thunder. The last time they played in the Clarkson Cup Final was 2012, when they lost 4-2 to the then-Montreal Stars; goaltender Liz Knox is the sole remaining player from that team. Until this week, they hadn't won a postseason game since.
"[Friday] was actually my first CWHL playoff win and then this is obviously going to be the first time that I make it to the Clarkson Cup Final, so I'm just ecstatic," said team captain Jocelyne Larocque, who joined the club in 2014 after one season with Team Alberta in 2012-13. "This is a big reason why I came back, but the major reason why I came back was just to be part of the team. To make it to the Clarkson Cup Final, that's just... it's amazing and I'm happy to contribute and I'm happy to be a part of it."
For Kunlun, playing in the final is an opportunity to showcase a winning product and garner further attention to women's ice hockey in China. According to head coach Digit Murphy, the goal for year one is as much about developing interest in the sport at the grassroots level as it is about anything else, and winning is the best way to create excitement.
"You speak of a group of 5000 people in the stands [in Shenzhen], there's a lot of kids," she noted. "I think that that audience starts to say 'Wow, I like hockey and I want to play it.' I think that our initiative is to win, or to play well and competitively in the CWHL, so that people like hockey. People like winners. So when you combine trying to teach the game and educate the game with a winning product -- when players are scoring goals and they're cheering for your players, but they see the Chinese faces like the Maddie Woos or the Mel Jues or the Jess Wongs scoring goals, or the Turbos or the Elsas or the Summers of Vanke scoring goals, then those Chinese kids want to grow up and be them as hockey players."
Though the Red Star is the higher seed and claimed the season series 3-2-0 (one win was in overtime), Markham has the edge based on its recent play. Whereas the Thunder haven't lost in regulation since November and have steadily progressed throughout the season, culminating in their sweep of Montreal, Kunlun dropped its second-last game 6-4 to Vanke and struggled against Calgary in both the semifinals and the regular season. Markham's had extra time to rest, and several Thunder players sat in the stands as the Red Star played two games' worth of hockey on Sunday in triple overtime.
How They Got Here
Markham Thunder vs. Les Canadiennes de Montréal
Both teams started strong on Friday, but Markham dominated the second half of the second period and got a goal from Nicole Kosta to show for it, just past the midway mark. Emmanuelle Blais tied things up for Montreal early in the third, and the game went, unsurprisingly, to overtime.
The Thunder bench was upset when Kristen Richards was whistled for elbowing just 3:38 into the extra session, but they didn't need to be, as their penalty kill got several threatening chances before Jamie Lee Rattray scored on a shorthanded breakaway to claim game one.
"I kind of got shocked on the bench because I'd just come off another PK [shift]," Rattray explained. "I hopped on quick and kind of looked up and had a little bit more room than I thought, so I just turned it on as much as I can and it's kind of a blur after that. I tried my best to just beat her to the other side and luckily it went in.
"We've brought these guys to overtime five times before and just we couldn't finish it off, and this time it felt so good," she added.
Markham was 5-for-5 on the penalty kill and 0-for-1 on the power play.
Erica Howe turned away 34 of 35 shots for the Thunder, while Emerance Maschmeyer saved 29 of 31 for the hosts.
Markham wasted no time on Saturday as Rattray put the puck in the net just 54 seconds into the game, though it was waved off for being gloved in. Sarah Lefort officially opened the scoring by tapping in a power-play goal at 11:25, but the lead was short-lived as Jenna McParland capitalized 18 seconds later on sloppy defensive-zone play by Montreal.
After a scoreless second period, an uncovered McParland struck again with a power-play marker midway through the third. She made it a hat trick not five minutes later to take the energy out of the crowd. Markham played a disciplined third period to close out the game and Rattray sealed it with an empty-netter for a 4-1 final score.
The Thunder were 1-for-5 on the power play and 2-for-3 on the kill.
Howe made 27 saves on 28 shots, while Maschmeyer stopped 19 of 22 pucks.
Though Les Canadiennes outshot their guests in both games, it was Markham that had the more dangerous opportunities.
"We got outworked," said Caroline Ouellette. "They just had this energy that they felt like they wanted it more than us. I think they were on a streak with their players coming back to end the season, and our best player was Masch. The quality of chances that we gave them was better than ours and in the end they capitalized on the power play. They're a good team. They're very fast, they're good in transition, they have three, four, five very, very good defence. At times we struggled with their speed."
Montreal had swept Markham through five regular-season meetings, but all of those games were decided by overtime or a shootout. The Thunder had also been on a roll through the second half of the year: they haven't lost in regulation since November 24, 2017. Because of that, there was never any doubt that they could beat the top seed.
"It's amazing," said McParland. "We battled hard. We went into this weekend thinking that we were going to win -- nothing was going to stop us. And we did."
The fourth-seeded Thunder may have had to play their series on the road, but they'll have home-ice advantage of sorts in Toronto for the championship. And it's fitting that they clinched this year's finals berth in Montreal, because in a way, that's where it all began.
"[The season's galvanizing moment] was last time we were in Montreal," explained Howe. "We lost the first game in OT and we hung out that night as a team in the hotel, no distractions -- we just kind of created memories. We ended up losing in a shootout the next day, but I think that was the moment where we didn't drop a game in regulation from then on."
The Thunder have a different style this season, and their newfound discipline has been a key to success for a group that, in past years, had developed a reputation as the league's (deservedly) most-penalized team.
"I think our coaching staff really started to discipline us," said McParland of the culture change. "And a lot of girls have been on this team for quite a while, and they really wanted to win. At the beginning of the season we really wanted it, and [playing disciplined] was the only way that we could do it."
While the team was bolstered by defenders Megan Bozek, Jocelyne Larocque, and Laura Fortino, along with forward Laura Stacey, Markham's upward trend began long before their arrivals.
"I don't even know if it's the new players," said Rattray. "We've played so well the last 16, 17 games, and of course having these girls back has definitely helped, but they fit in so well. We always knew that there was an opportunity for them to come back and we knew that we were rolling at the right time. I think our focus has just never wavered from what our goal is and it's been pretty fun, that's for sure, on this roll."
Les Canadiennes, for their part, struggled to find consistency with their line-up. While the late addition of Hilary Knight and Lauriane Rougeau improved the team's overall level, the coaching staff reacted to it -- along with player absences due to prior commitments and a suspension to Karell Emard -- by making several changes each game to just about every line and defensive pairing. As a result, they seemed to lack cohesion at the moment it mattered most. Though players weren't willing to use it as an excuse, they admitted that the inconsistency made it difficult to develop a rhythm.
"It's tough because you're trying to learn tendencies on the fly. But at the same time it's a great opportunity and you're playing with great players, so wherever you get inserted you've just got to take advantage of the opportunity and try to make the best of it," said Knight, who spent time at both center and wing on multiple incarnations of the first, second, and third lines, as well as special teams units, throughout her three games in a Montreal jersey.
As for the question on everyone's minds, Ouellette said she hasn't yet decided whether she'll be hanging up the skates, but acknowledged that coming back was more difficult than she'd expected.
"It's hard to find the speed back after you give birth," she explained. "I have the utmost respect for the female athletes that have done it -- Cheryl Pounder, Becky Kellar, Meaghan Mikkelson. It's difficult. It changes your body a lot and it changes your life. But I'm glad I did, and I had a lot of fun with the girls. We had a great group and unfortunately [Markham] had that edge that we actually had last year, because we had been unsuccessful in that final and we went for it. We were on our toes in that final game, and this series, it was Markham that was."
Calgary Inferno vs. Kunlun Red Star
The Inferno won the first game by a 3-0 margin, outshooting Kunlun 38-20 in the process.
Dakota Woodworth opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 8:40 of the first. Calgary dominated the second period shot clock 17-6, but Noora Räty kept the Red Star within reach. Louise Warren doubled the advantage midway through the third, and Brittney Fouracres made it 3-0 with 1:46 remaining.
The Inferno were 1-for-7 on the power play and 2-for-2 on the penalty kill.
Delayne Brian earned the 20-save shut out, while Räty stopped 35 pucks in defeat.
Saturday's game stretched into overtime, with the Red Star taking a 3-2 win.
Taylor Marchin opened the scoring with her first CWHL goal, a power-play marker at 14:00 of the first, and Blayre Turnbull tied things up with just 1:08 left in the middle period. Shiann Darkangelo put the Red Star back in front at 7:53 of third, but a power-play marker by Iya Gavrilova with just 1:03 remaining forced the extra session.
Unfortunately for Calgary, the comeback was shortlived, as Stephanie Anderson ended the overtime after two-and-a-half minutes to tie the series 1-1.
Kunlun was 1-for-5 on the power play and killed five of six penalties.
Räty made 34 saves on 36 shots, while Brian turned away 27 of 30 chances.
It was Räty and Brian who stole the show in Sunday's tiebreaker, which easily surpassed the league's record for the longest game and took nearly three full overtime periods to decide.
No skater managed to beat either goalie for 114 minutes of play, despite a back-and-forth pace, 14 power play chances, and 109 combined shots. It was only the 110th shot, a move from in tight by Alex Carpenter at 114:01, that finally got past Brian and earned Kunlun a berth in the Clarkson Cup Final.
Räty earned a stunning 66-save shut-out, while Brian turned away 43 of 44 shots.
As if the heartbreak elimination wasn't enough, the extra two hours of game time meant that the Inferno missed their scheduled flight back to Calgary and were forced to stay (part of) the night before flying out early the next morning.
- CWHL Awards Show -- March 23 at 7:00 PM Eastern at Toronto Centre for the Arts (Toronto, Ontario)
- CWHL Community Day -- March 24 at MLSE LaunchPad (Toronto, Ontario)
- Clarkson Cup Final: Markham Thunder vs. Kunlun Red Star -- March 25 at 12:00 PM Eastern at Ricoh Coliseum (Toronto, Ontario)
(Photo credit: Shanna Martin/CWHL)