PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
For the first time since the current playoff format was introduced in 2015-16, both semifinal series went to three games this year.
The fourth-seed Toronto Furies upset the league-leading Calgary Inferno in Game 1 on Friday, before the Inferno pulled away with two consecutive wins. For their part, Les Canadiennes de Montréal overcame some chaotic off-ice circumstances to pull out a win in Game 1, then responded to the Markham Thunder's Game 2 rebound with a dominant performance on Sunday.
Ultimately, the (far and away) top two teams from the regular season are both headed to Toronto for the Clarkson Cup Final, but neither route was as smooth as may have been expected.
After a stolen Jeep full of skates and blades threw off game day preparations for a quarter of the group, including herself, Hilary Knight notched a goal and an assist en route to a 3-0 win for Montreal in Game 1 on Friday.
Les Canadiennes were without captain Marie-Philip Poulin for the series after she sustained a knee injury in the final game of the regular season.
"I don't think [we took it as] devastating," said Karell Emard of Poulin's absence, adding that others are stepping up. "Even if puzzle pieces are falling, we're going to catch them back at the end there and they're going to come back with us. But people are just not stressing over anything, focusing on hockey strictly, and just doing their job. That keeps it simple."
Mélodie Daoust thought she'd opened the scoring just a minute-and-a-half in after shooting home a puck that fell out of Erica Howe's glove, but a quick whistle on the play led to it being disallowed. Not 10 minutes later she opened the scoring for real, with a power-play marker at 9:52. The goal came just 14 seconds after Jenna McParland was assessed a 10-minute misconduct for contact to the head when she took Erin Ambrose into the boards hard behind the Montreal net. Ambrose briefly returned to the game but did not come back out for the second period and was not dressed for the remainder of the series, due to a suspected head injury.
Catherine Daoust doubled the lead at 18:32 of the second off a fluttery power-play point shot that was deflected by a Markham player in front of the crease.
At 13:38 of the third, Knight made it 3-0 on an impressive individual effort, collecting the rebound off her own shot in tight and deking to her left to beat Howe.
Les Canadiennes had a dominant 34-13 edge on the shot clock, but the Thunder generally did well to limit the danger of many of those chances.
"Overall, I thought the D-zone coverage was really, really good," offered associate head coach Caroline Ouellette. "We've been practicing a lot, we've been doing a lot of video on it, and the girls have really bought in. They know their job, they're sticking to the plan, they're not trying to do someone else's job, and I think collectively we were able to kill their speed, to turn a lot of pucks over, and to stop their best players."
Montreal was 2-for-4 on the power play and killed off four penalties.
Emerance Maschmeyer turned away all 13 shots faced, while Howe made 31 saves on 34 opportunities.
Jenna McParland recorded a hat trick, all on the power play, as the Thunder evened the series with a 4-3 win on Saturday.
Defender Laura Fortino and forward Jess Jones were both out of the line up for Markham, and remained out for Game 3.
"We needed to play a little harder," explained Howe of the message going into the physical affair. "They're a really good team, they come with speed; we just need to play body on body, get on them, and come out hard."
McParland's first goal came under two minutes in when she tipped in a shot from the point. She followed it up at 6:12, beating Maschmeyer from a tight angle off a feed from Jocelyne Larocque.
McParland rounded out the hat trick from her knees at 6:46 of the second on a play where Maschmeyer's teammates probably did more harm than help. Barely 10 seconds later, though, Knight decided that it was time to respond and powered her way up the wing and into the slot before tucking the puck past Howe in tight. It seemed like the immediate reply might spark Montreal, but it was Markham's Ella Matteucci who got the next goal -- another power play tally, this time from the right circle at 15:59.
Laura Stacey appeared to have made it 5-1 with a tip in front at 9:19 of the third, but apparently the screen was too close to the goalie and it was called back. Then, with just under two minutes remaining and Maschmeyer pulled for the extra attacker, Knight leaned into a hard shot from the point and brought Montreal within two. Forty-one seconds after that, she put another shot on net and Emard swooped into the slot to get the rebound, making it 4-3 with 1:08 left and providing a sliver of hope for a comeback.
"I think it speaks to the heart and soul of this team," said Knight of the late effort. "We're a never die team, never give up."
Howe managed to hold on through the tense final minute, evening the series at one apiece.
"I think we just take the positives out of the game, see what we did well," said Howe of the team's approach following a strong performance that shifted momentum in the dying minutes. "We played hard all game, we were really good on the PP, and we came out with the win at the end, so that's positive, and we'll move forward into tomorrow."
Markham was 4-for-7 on the power play and perfect through four penalty kills.
Howe made 40 saves on 43 shots, while Maschmeyer allowed four goals on 20.
"We believed that we could come back," said Ouellette of the end push. "We believed that we have everything that is needed to score three goals in a period, and I think we came very close. We told them that in the best case we would win, and worst case we would set the tone for tomorrow."
Set the tone they did: Mélodie Daoust and Jill Saulnier each had a goal and two assists as Les Canadiennes came back with a vengeance on Sunday to earn their trip to Toronto.
Daoust once again opened the scoring, on a deflection at 9:29 of the first.
"The goalie has a harder time stopping the puck if she can't see it," said Knight. "So when Mélo got a tip on that shot, it was awesome, and it was like all right, let's flood the front of the net and pick up some garbage in front, and let's do it. She started it all off, and Caro's done a great job of emphasizing, making sure that we have bodies in front of the net and are playing big and tall."
Saulnier quickly made it 2-0 at 1:19 of the second, jamming the puck in to start a sequence in which Montreal took complete control of the game. Lauriane Rougeau netted a power-play goal from the left circle at 3:02, and Knight followed it up by tipping in a Taylor Willard shot 81 seconds later. Before the period was done, Tracy-Ann Lavigne went top shelf at 11:24 to make it 5-0.
"That's the best that I've seen Lauriane Rougeau play," praised Ouellette. "She really, really stepped up. From the start of playoffs she's been a force for us. She had the task of playing against Bach's line, which no doubt is one of the best lines in the CWHL. They have speed, they have skills, they have smarts, and her and Catherine Daoust were absolutely fantastic. She was physical from start to finish, she blocked shots, she calmed the play when she needed to, she never got rid of the puck, she made strong plays with the puck. I went to see her after she scored and I was like, 'I can't think of a more deserving player to score a goal right now'."
The third period was a little more back-and-forth as Markham grew desperate, but Les Canadiennes managed to put it away.
"The energy on the bench was extraordinary," Ouellette explained. "Everyone was encouraging each other. The girls were keeping their shifts short which allowed them to come back more quickly one after the other, and I think the second period was one of our best of the whole season because in continuing to keep shifts short, we bottled them up and kept them in their zone, preventing them from changing. For me it was wave of red after wave of red that was coming with a lot of pressure and speed. Our defenders were offensively engaged and we were attacking with five players. It was like there were no positions, we attacked with all five and everyone was involved, which allowed us to cause them headaches while having a lot of fluidity in our attacks."
Montreal was 1-for-2 on the power play and killed off two penalties.
Maschmeyer stopped all 17 shots faced, while Howe saved 29 of 34.
Shea Tiley made 33 saves and Natalie Spooner netted two goals and an assist as the Furies pulled off an upset in Game 1 on Friday.
The Inferno had the edge from the jump, outshooting Toronto 13-5 in a physical, back-and-forth opening period that ended without any change to the score.
Brigette Lacquette put the hosts ahead quickly in the second, courtesy of a low point shot through traffic at 1:39. Spooner, however, evened things up on a partial breakaway just before the midway point of the game, then added another, this time on the power play at 12:29. The Inferno seemed to get frustrated and take it out on their opponents, a reaction that led to four penalties in just over a seven-minute span.
Calgary dominated for most of the third period, but it was Sarah Nurse who got the only other goal of the night at the 37 second mark, capitalizing on a 3-on-5 opportunity that she herself partly drew by going glove-side from the slot.
The Furies were 2-for-8 with the extra attacker and killed off four penalties.
Alex Rigsby turned away 15 of 18 shots in the Inferno crease.
Rigsby posted a 13-save shut-out on Saturday as Calgary claimed a 3-0 win in Game 2.
Tiley, however, was the hero for most of the match, keeping it goalless through 40 minutes despite being outshot 22-6. Shot totals aren't always indicative of possession, but it this case, they certainly were.
The Inferno nearly doubled that shot margin in the third period alone, and finally saw their efforts reflected on the scoresheet when Rebecca Johnston tipped in a point shot from Kacey Bellamy at 4:55. Blayre Turnbull slotted in a juicy rebound from the slot at 13:46, and Brianne Jenner added an empty-netter with three seconds remaining to seal the game.
Both teams were 0-for-6 on the power play.
Tiley made 39 saves on 42 shots in the contest.
Brianna Decker tallied twice as the Inferno clinched their spot in the Clarkson Cup Final with a 4-1 win on Sunday.
Decker opened the scoring with under a minute left in the opening frame, scoring five-hole from her knees in the slot off a pass from Johnston.
Carolyne Prévost rushed the puck into the zone and scored from the circle to tie things up at 5:35. Jenner then put Calgary back ahead with a deflection from the top of the crease at 17:20 to end the period at 2-1.
Decker made it 3-1 with a slapshot from the top of the circle at 9:11, pushing the game further out of reach. The Furies weren't out of it yet though: the puck crossed the line after a scramble in front in the dying minutes, but the goal was called off, leading to a visibly frustrated Spooner who was clearly not satisfied with the ref's explanation.
Bellamy added insult to injury by following it up with a shorthanded empty-netter at 18:30, securing the berth in the Final.
The Inferno were 0-for-1 on the power play and killed off three penalties.
Rigsby made 17 saves on 18 shots, while Elaine Chuli turned away 31 of 34.
(Photo credit: Shanna Martin-Book/CWHL)