The CWHL has seen tight playoff races and unpredictable playoff matchups, but it's yet to see a year where both the playoff race and the playoffs themselves are equally competitive. Expect that to change in 2018-19.
All teams except the Markham Thunder are returning only about half of the roster they ended 2017-18 with (though that gap is exaggerated for most by veteran Olympians who didn't play last year). Between the addition of players from several national programs and a strong 2018 draft class, there may well be more depth throughout the league than ever before.
The Thunder, Les Canadiennes de Montréal, the Calgary Inferno, and the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays will likely maintain the top four spots (though the order is anyone's guess), but if Toronto's revamped roster clicks early, the Furies could sneak in. The Worcester Blades lost many of their key players over the offseason and will likely remain at the bottom of the standings, but the Blades' defense -- led by Alexis (Crossley) Miller, Lauren Williams, and Kristina Brown -- seems stable, so if they can find scoring, they could cause some upsets and play spoiler to teams with stronger rosters on paper.
Off the ice, Montreal and Worcester are both breaking in new (and improved) homes this year. Les Canadiennes entered a partnership with Place Bell in Laval on Montreal's north shore (accessible via metro), and will play two games in the 10,000-seat amphitheatre. They've also got a dedicated locker room onsite and have a handful of games scheduled for the venue's smaller community rink. The Blades undertook a full rebrand after moving to Worcester, about an hour west of Boston. They're now based out of the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center, which serves as the practice facility for the ECHL's Worcester Railers, and will host Montreal at the Railers' 12,000-seat home arena on November 17.
Here are the upcoming opening matchups, and what to watch for as we dive into the 2018-19 CWHL season:
Calgary Inferno vs. Les Canadiennes de Montréal
Three things to watch:
- Battle of the Olympians -- Calgary and Montreal are the deepest teams on paper, with a league-leading nine and six Olympians, respectively. Jill Saulnier and Geneviève Lacasse will be suiting up against their former team, and after playing alongside each other for the University of Wisconsin, the Blades, and the Boston Pride, Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker will line up on opposite sides for the first time in their careers.
- The Dream Team(s) -- Much has been made about the potential of seeing Knight and Marie-Philip Poulin play together. Will we see them on the same line? What will Les Canadiennes' power play look like against an elite opponent? How will Calgary's defense -- which features five players from three national team programs -- challenge Montreal's top two lines, which will likely be comprised of five national program athletes plus (if healthy) Ann-Sophie Bettez?
- Attendance -- Saturday's season opener will be the first CWHL game played at Place Bell's amphitheatre, which is home to the AHL's Laval Rocket. Rocket attendance has averaged just a little over half of the arena's capacity, so how will Les Canadiennes, with minimal offline advertisement, compare? And how will the double-header, where all attendees to the afternoon AHL game get free admission to the evening's CWHL contest, impact the audience?
Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays vs. Toronto Furies
Three things to watch:
- Ice Time -- The amalgamated KRS team has just eight Chinese nationals, but they're the top eight players in the program and most saw significant playing time last year. What roles will they play, and will reliance on international players decrease? How will new head coach Bob Deraney approach the dual issue of development and competition? What can we expect from the best of two teams blended into one?
- Reinforced Furies -- Toronto likely benefited the most from the 2018 draft, and paired that with a handful of free agent acquisitions. The Furies have improved both depth and top-end talent at every position, and are going from finishing second-last to a solid chance at playoffs. Toronto will be looking to carry the momentum from its 6-1 preseason win over (a slightly depleted) Markham into the regular season, and Shenzhen -- which prepared with a series of exhibition games against the Blades and NCAA teams -- should be a good test for the Furies against a cohesive line-up.
- Fluctuations and Patterns -- With games on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, this three-game series will give both teams a chance to feel each other out, but a best-of-three to start the season could also highlight any inconsistency or potential overreliance on certain players. Look out for who's in net and when, and whether line-ups change significantly from game-to-game.
Worcester Blades vs. Markham Thunder
Three things to watch:
- Defending the Title -- Markham is returning the bulk of its championship roster, but the Thunder (albeit absent several key players) fell 6-1 to the Toronto Furies in exhibition play last month. The Blades may not be the toughest test on paper, but it's a good chance for Markham to find its form before a challenging first-half schedule gets underway.
- Rebuild, Year Four -- On the other hand, a Thunder team that has shown weakness is a good opportunity for the new-look Blades to jump in and surprise. If it can exploit the same errors the Furies saw, Worcester could give Markham a scare and gain some early confidence. Regardless, the level of competition isn't going to get easier, so how the Blades react will be a sign of what to expect from them this season.
- Community Engagement -- The Thunder will raise their championship banner ahead of Saturday's game, with the Clarkson Cup onsite. The city of Markham has been publicizing the event, and the turnout will be a good indication of how a full year in Markham has anchored the team in the community.
- Calgary Inferno vs. Les Canadiennes de Montréal -- October 13 at 6:30 PM Eastern at Place Bell (streamed); October 14 at 1:00 PM Eastern at Place Bell
- Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays vs. Toronto Furies -- October 13 at 7:00 PM Eastern at Mastercard Centre - Rink 1; October 14 at 1:00 PM Eastern at Mastercard Centre - Rink 1 (streamed); October 17 at 8:45 PM Eastern at Mastercard Centre - Rink 1
- Worcester Blades vs. Markham Thunder -- October 13 at 7:30 PM Eastern at Thornhill Community Centre (streamed); October 14 at 12:30 PM Eastern at Thornhill Community Centre
(Photo credit: Céline Gélinas/CWHL)