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Markham Thunder ready to roll for playoffs

After a rough start to the season, the Thunder are primed for the Clarkson Cup playoffs.

Jess Bazal/CWHL

The Thunder are poised to make noise in the quest for the Clarkson Cup.

Rewind to November 24 at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Center in Longgang, China. The Markham Thunder are concluding their road trip across the Pacific Ocean against Kunlun Red Star. At the end of the night, the scoreboard displayed a heartbreaking 1-0 final in favor of the home team. Markham’s four-game stretch in China was over. After surrendering sixteen goals and scoring only five of their own in that span, the team had failed to earn a single point in the standings where their record now stood at a paltry 3-7-2-0 through twelve games.

Snap back to the present day. The Thunder have earned at least a point in every game since that night and they are now on the verge of clinching the final playoff spot.

In a remarkable run of fourteen games dating from December 2, 2017 to March 4, 2018 Markham have gone 9-0-2-3. This tale of two regular seasons wraps up with two games against the last place Boston Blades. The Thunder need only a single point against Boston to clinch the playoffs over Vanke, whose own playoff hopes are held up by a fraying thread. The Rays must win their last two games against Red Star while the Blades, who have a single win all year, have to shock the Thunder with back-to-back wins in regulation.

Markham’s playoff fate is in good hands — their own. Getting in is just the start and this team does not look ready to stop. Who they will face in the opening round of the postseason is uncertain as the final weekend of the CWHL regular season is set to be a showdown for first place between Kunlun, Montreal, and Calgary. What is certain is that the Thunder look like they are ready to play the role of spoiler. It is no easy task, but here is why they can pull it off:

Rattray Leads The Way

Jamie Lee Rattray is in the midst of a breakout season. The Thunder veteran leads the team with 34 points, including 19 goals, and has registered a point in each of the last fourteen games during the miracle run since December 2. Rattray is a threat every time she is on the ice, especially during even strength play. Only two of her goals have come on the power play. If she can continue this blistering pace in the postseason, Markham has as good a chance as anyone.

Barnburners To Blowouts

In December and January of this season, the Thunder found a way to stay in every game they played. Seven of the nine games played in that period were one-goal games, and all seven required an overtime or shootout. Markham went 1-2-4 in those games that went to extra time.

February and March have been a different story. In the five games played since February, they have gone on a five game winning streak with an astounding 25 goals for and only 8 goals against. The offense has found a spark and the netminding from Erica Howe and Liz Knox have been lights out. The most dangerous weapons in a playoff arsenal are hot goaltending and electrifying offense. The Thunder have both.

Bolstered Rosters

With the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Markham Thunder have reacquired their Olympic trio for their playoff push — team captain Jocelyne Larocque, former Defender of the Year Laura Fortino, and last season’s Rookie of the Year Laura Stacey.

Larocque has been a stalwart blueliner for Team Canada and Markham, tasked with a heavy workload of ice time and shutting down the opposition’s top threats.

Fortino returns to the Thunder where she registered 19 points in 20 games last season. She was nominated for Defenseman of the Year and has proven herself to be an impact player on the offensive and defensive sides rink.

Stacey is the reigning Rookie of the Year in the CWHL following a season in which she recorded 24 points, including 11 goals. Her speed and skill is always on display in all three zones, making her a threat in every situation on the ice.

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The Markham Thunder have been heating up since December and they have only gotten better in the final weeks of the season. While Kunlun and Montreal have been dominant all season, they should be weary of drawing Markham in the opening round. This team is poised to make noise and ride this wave of momentum all the way to the Clarkson Cup.