For the third time in four seasons, the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montréal will face off for the Clarkson Cup. The Inferno won in 2016 while Montreal came out on top in 2017; in both of those meetings, it was the second-seed underdog side that claimed the championship.
How They Got Here
After finishing 1-2 in the regular season, Calgary and Les Canadiennes both needed three games to dispatch their opponents in the semifinals. The Inferno bounced back from a Game 1 loss to claim their series against the Toronto Furies with a pair of convincing wins. Montreal, meanwhile, sandwiched a loss between two shut-out victories over the Markham Thunder.
Head to Head
Calgary claimed the season series by a 4-2 margin, thanks to two splits and a home sweep in November. That series left Les Canadiennes with injuries to two key players and a desire for revenge, and numerous players have since referred to it as a much-needed wake-up call. The Inferno outscored Montreal 16-14 during those six games, of which three were one-goal contests (and another would've been if not for an empty-netter). The single shutout was courtesy of Emerance Maschmeyer, in a 3-0 win in the last game of the season series -- the only one with greater than a two-goal margin.
These are two opponents that know each other well, and not just because of the history between the teams. Even Inferno rookie Rebecca Leslie says it's obvious that there's a rivalry whenever they step on the ice against Montreal.
"[The fact that we're playing Calgary makes it] even more exciting," said Maschmeyer, clearly looking forward to facing her former squad. "I'm very happy about that, and they're a really great team. If we take this momentum that we have, I think we'll have no problem in that game."
"Montreal is a great team with some great players and I think that for us to play well against them, we're going to have to get lots of pucks on net," offered Leslie. "They have great goaltending and I think that we're just going to have to stick together and play as a team and play for each other. It's our last chance to play together. All season long it's been tight battles and I think that it's going to be a tight battle. We've put in the work throughout the year, so I think that it'll be a good test to see how everything that we've done this year, how it will all work out and come together. It'll be a great opportunity for us to play together one last time."
Both sides identify speed and puck movement as their greatest strengths, which should make for a very entertaining contest.
Who to Watch For
One key question going into the final is whether both teams will be at full strength. The Inferno appear to have gone through the season relatively unscathed, but Montreal lost captain Marie-Philip Poulin (knee) in the last game of the regular season and defender of the year nominee Erin Ambrose (head/neck) during the semifinals. Les Canadiennes managed to make it this far without them, but they're two important players with the ability to change a game.
Hilary Knight and Jill Saulnier have had impressive postseason showings thus far and Montreal will hope they continue to drive offense. Ultimately, though, the play of Mélodie Daoust -- who recently returned to her natural center position after a year-and-a-half playing at wing for club and country -- and Lauriane Rougeau may make the biggest difference, particularly if Poulin and/or Ambrose aren't available.
It seems strange to call two-time Olympian Brianne Jenner underrated, but somehow it feels appropriate. She's quietly been one of the strongest and most consistent centers in the game over the past quad, and led Calgary in goal-scoring from the second line this season. If the Inferno come out on top, her line will almost certainly have an important part in it. Blayre Turnbull has also been having herself a year. The top-line duo of Brianna Decker and Rebecca Johnston seems almost too obvious to mention.
On the back-end, the second pairing of Brigette Lacquette and Halli Krzyzaniak is one to keep an eye on -- both are strong defenders with tremendous puck-moving ability, but also have a knack for getting into penalty trouble.
And, of course, there's the goalie battle. Expect it to once again be a duel between Maschmeyer and Alex Rigsby. Maschmeyer led all goalies in all statistical categories this year, but Rigsby's numbers aren't far behind and even the highest-scoring matches between the two have involved some downright incredible saves on both ends.
Keys to Success
Discipline: Calgary has the skill to play with anyone, but they've occasionally gotten away from it. Undisciplined play cost them in Game 1 of the semifinals, and they can't afford a repeat in a winner-takes-all championship match.
Defense: The Inferno's system is very offense-driven, and that's sometimes made it easier than it should be for opponents to capitalize on stray passes and turnovers. Championships are often won in the middle of the ice, and the neutral zone is one area where Calgary will need to stymie Les Canadiennes' speed.
Relentlessness: It may seem cliché, but Calgary's at its most dangerous when it's rolling three lines without giving the opponent any breathing room. They're capable of delivering attack after attack after attack, and that kind of pressure is difficult for anyone to withstand.
Les Canadiennes de Montréal
Chemistry & Depth: Injuries and other absences have forced some changes to Montreal's line-up over the past few weeks, and how players adapt to their new roles and linemates/pairings will be crucial going into a one-game final. Much like the Inferno, Montreal's best showings have been strong team performances with at least three lines making a noticeable impact.
Starting On Time: Les Canadiennes at times made a habit of slow starts this year, and while they've sometimes recovered with impressive comebacks, getting down early hardly puts them in the best position to succeed. With no rematch game to take solace in, a strong start becomes that much more important.
Special Teams: Montreal's penalty kill was perfect in the first and third games of the semifinals, but an absolutely disaster in game two, where all four goals against (plus another that was called off) came while they were shorthanded. The power play, meanwhile, has struggled to produce to the extent one might expect from their personnel. Against Calgary they'll need to take advantage of their opportunities and avoid giving anything up.
The 2019 CWHL Awards Show is taking place on Friday, March 22 at 7:30 PM Eastern at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. Tickets are available here.
Award winners/nominees are:
Chairman's Trophy (regular season champions): Calgary Inferno
Angela James Bowl (regular season scoring leader): Marie-Philip Poulin
Rookie of the Year: Victoria Bach (MRK), Rebecca Leslie (CGY), Sarah Nurse (TOR)
Defenceman of the Year: Erin Ambrose (MTL), Kacey Bellamy (CGY), Laura Fortino (MRK)
Goaltender of the Year: Emerance Maschmeyer (MTL), Noora Räty (KRS), Alex Rigsby (CGY)
MVP: Rebecca Johnston (CGY), Marie-Philip Poulin (MTL), Natalie Spooner (TOR)
Jayna Hefford Trophy (player-voted MVP): Brianne Jenner (CGY), Emerance Maschmeyer (MTL), Marie-Philip Poulin (MTL)
Coach of the Year: Ryan Hilderman (CGY), Jim Jackson (MRK), Courtney Kessel (TOR)
Humanitarian of the Year will also be presented.
How to Watch
The Clarkson Cup Final will be televised live nationally in Canada on Sportsnet (English) and TVA Sports (French) at 12:00 PM Eastern on Sunday, March 24, with streaming available to subscribers through SNNow and TVA Sports en direct. It will also be televised live in the U.S. on NHL Network. The game is taking place at the Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto and tickets remain available.
(Photo credit: Shanna Martin-Book/CWHL)