Editor’s note: The seventh annual Clarkson Cup playoff tournament will be contested in Markham, On. beginning on Wednesday morning!
Named after former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, the Clarkson Cup is the CWHL’s prestigious championship trophy. In roughly a week, four teams will play for a chance to hoist it: the Boston Blade, the Calgary Inferno, the Montreal Stars, and the defending champion Toronto Furies.
To prepare you for all the action, our CWHL writers Valerie Chiasson, Angelica Rodriguez and Zoë Hayden have put together an extensive matchup preview.
Read on past the jump!
Boston Blades vs. Toronto Furies
The Boston Blades claimed the top spot in the CWHL by doing the obvious: they scored the most goals in the league (94) and allowed the fewest (43). Their +51 goal differential is intimidating, compared to the Toronto Furies’ -37 (51 goals for and 88 against). The Furies are 10 points behind the 3rd place Montreal Stars, and if the Brampton Thunder had done just a little better down the stretch, they could have missed the playoffs altogether.
Against the Blades, Toronto was only able to score 10 goals in 6 games, or 1.67 goals per game. Boston scored 26 in 10, or 2.6/game. Clearly, the Blades’ dominant offense should work in their favour in this series, with Brianna Decker and Jillian Dempsey currently leading the pack.
And so are their special teams. The Blades converted on their power play 22 percent of the time, and killed 87 percent of all penalties–both best of all CWHL teams this season. The Furies, on the other hand, have the absolute worst special teams in the league. Their power play is converting at a 12.4 percent clip, their penalty kill just 77.7 percent. They’ve also had the most time on the power play this season, with 113 power-play opportunities, which makes their conversion rate all the more dismal.
If the Furies want any chance of beating the Blades, they’ll need a prodigious performance or two from Christina Kessler. Kessler has played the most of any goaltender, and has faced the most shots–over 600 of them. Under these circumstances, her .900 save percentage is admirable. If she stands on her head, she could earn Toronto a victory like one of their 3-2 wins back in December, when she stopped 83 of 87 over the weekend.
Players like Carolyne Prevost and Natalie Spooner, who have carried the offense for the Furies, will need to be at their best, especially with leading scorer Jenelle Kohanchuk out for the playoffs. They’ll also need their defense to insulate Kessler–something they haven’t excelled at this season considering the shot total.
The Blades will just need to keep their scoring going at the same clip, and continue to get solid goaltending. It’s unknown if Hilary Knight will return, but the Blades have more than enough offense to go around. Not one skater who has suited up for Boston has failed to score a point. They get goals from all areas of the ice, but especially their blueline; five of the top 10 scorers among defenceman in the CWHL are Boston Blades skaters (Tara Watchorn, Monique Lamoureux, Blake Bolden, Kacey Bellamy, and Kaleigh Fratkin).
Zoë: If the Blades take two games with ease, it would not be surprising, but the Furies were the comeback kids last season and upset the Blades in a big way in the Final, after defeating the league-leading Montreal Stars. However, that was a very different Blades roster, and I don’t think the Furies can win twice in the new best-of-three format. Boston will likely win, but whether it comes in 2 or 3 games is up to Christina Kessler.
Val: The Blades are number one in the league across the board (goals for, goals against, power play, penalty kill and goaltending) so it’s hard to bet against them. Even though the Furies did manage to beat the Blades twice this season, they also got whipped 7-0 and 4-0 in their last two games against Boston.
The Furies’ fate rests on Kessler’s shoulders. She’ll have to stand on her head the way she did for that 3-2 win in December despite Toronto being outshot 51 to 19(!). But even then, Kessler can’t do everything. Technically Toronto could steal one, but I say Boston wins this series in 2 games.
Angelica: Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the Blades that hasn’t been said before — this team has virtually no weaknesses. They have amazing offense, a stifling defense, and while their goaltending can occasionally whiff, it doesn’t happen very often. Considering the 7-0 loss Toronto suffered at their hands came when Boston was skating just 13 players overall, the Furies will have their hands full with a healthy squad for sure. I say Blades in 2. Sorry, Toronto. I still love you.
Montreal Stars vs. Calgary Inferno
This is a pretty even matchup. Calgary finished second, Montreal third, but thing even out when you check out goals for and against.
While the Inferno scored 17 more goals than Montreal (84 to the Stars’ 67), the Stars had the better goals against total, with 49 to Calgary’s 64. While Ann-Sophie Bettez, Noemie Marin and Caroline Ouellette took some time to heat up on offense, Charline Labonte was on from Day 1, finishing with a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage while carrying most of the workload for the Stars.
The regular season series was an even split (3-3-0), with each team taking two of three at home and winning their third on the road. Rebecca Johnston and Jessica Campbell led the Inferno in goals against Montreal with four and three, while Noemie Marin (four goals) and Ann-Sophie Bettez (three goals) also liked playing Calgary, apparently.
Montreal’s special teams are slightly better than Calgary’s. The Stars’ power play is at 20.19 percent efficiency, good for second in the league, while Calgary is just behind them at 18.29 percent. The Stars’ penalty kill was effective 85.37 percent of the time, while the Inferno’s killed off opposing power plays at a 80.85 percent rate, good for second and fourth in the league respectively. Calgary’s relatively weaker special teams could certainly be an issue heading into this first round, especially if they head to the penalty box on a regular basis.
Expect a strong showing by Angela James Bowl winner Johnston and rookie Brittany Esposito, who have played a major role in the Inferno’s success this year. Bailey Bram has also improved over the course of the season; she played well in the Inferno’s final weekend against Brampton, though she didn’t have any points to show for it.
Delayne Brian will have to step up her game if she wants to help the Inferno reach the championship game. She hasn’t been a liability, but her 2.46 GAA will have to be better during the playoffs because there will be tighter, low scoring games just like we saw during the Boston vs Montreal games at the end of the season. She will also have to be on her toes and not let the Stars’ top scorers strike early; Calgary seemed to take a while to really crack opposing goaltenders in their last couple of weekends, with the bulk of their scoring not happening until the second or third period.
On Montreal’s side, Caroline Ouellette should keep up the great work she’s been doing all season with Cathy Chartrand. Charline Labonté has to keep being the dominant goaltender she’s been all season. We would like to see more from Ann-Sophie Bettez, who won the Angela James Bowl in 2013-14 with 40 points, but finished with just 14 this season. Meanwhile, Noemie Marin has had the hottest stick on the team, with a hat trick and four goals in the Stars’ last four games.
The Inferno vs. Stars series is a much tougher call than Blades vs. Furies. I’m going to say Stars in 3.
Val: Both teams are pretty even on paper but I am going to go with the Montreal Stars winning in three games mainly because of their experienced roster and their special teams. That combined with the absence of Haley Irwin which is a big loss for Calgary, should play in Montreal’s favour.
Angelica: Irwin’s absence hurts, but it’s not quite a backbreaker — Campbell, Esposito and Johnston have all stepped up and provided quality offense for the Inferno in her stead. Should she not return for playoffs (and it’s unknown if she will at this point), I think the offense will be okay.
This series is really going to come down to the other side of the puck. Labonte has been more consistent in goal, while Brian has heated up recently, so it’s more of a toss-up for me — and if both are on point, this could come down to the wire. I say Calgary in three, with an overtime goal for good measure.