Playoffs: Clarkson Cup Champions
After an offseason move and a name change, the Markham Thunder (formerly Brampton) won its first Clarkson Cup in franchise history. While some might say the absence of Olympians in the CWHL this year improved their chances, there’s no denying that the Thunder found a way to come together and play winning hockey.
Like other teams, the Thunder struggled without their Olympians out of the picture for most of the season. The team was without eight players from its 2016-17 roster. Three players: Rebecca Vint, Sarah Edney, the CWHL’s top scorer — tied with Marie-Philip Poulin — Jess Jones all moved to the Buffalo Beauts in the offseason. As a result, most fans and members of the media did not know what to expect from the re-branded Thunder.
2018 Olympians Laura Stacey, Laura Fortino, and Thunder captain Jocelyne Larocque centralized with Team Canada and did not return until March.
However, the Thunder added three veterans in free agency, including 2017 Isobel Cup Champion Devon Skeats and Nicole Kosta. The pair defected from the Buffalo and Connecticut NWHL teams, respectively. The third veteran addition was defender Lindsay Grigg, who returned to North American hockey after playing the 2016-17 season in Sweden. Like Skeats, she played in the NWHL during the 2015-16 season.
The Thunder struggled to find their rhythm early in the season. They dropped eight of their first ten games and were outscored 27-15 in that stretch.
The team got a huge boost in January when Megan Bozek signed after her eyebrow-raising omission from the U.S. national team ahead of the PyeongChang Games. Thus, Bozek became the third former Beauts player (Skeats and Grigg) to join Markham this season.
By February, the team was riding an impressive winning streak and en route to the final playoff spot.
What Went Wrong
Much like the story of the Isobel Cup Champion Metropolitan Riveters, it’s hard to say that anything went wrong for Markham in a season that ended with its first championship. However, in looking at the Thunder’s record, we do see the Thunder struggled to finish games. The good news: Markham proved they could press an opponent until the very end of the game. The bad news: they did not fare well in extra time in the regular season. The great news: they solved the riddle of overtime hockey in the playoffs.
Markham lost seven of their nine games that required extra time during the regular season. Of those games, the Thunder surrendered the lead to their opponents only three times.
Game of the Year - Semifinal Series vs Montréal
Okay, I couldn’t pick just one game, so I jumped straight to the semifinals of the 2018 Clarkson Cup Playoffs.
In the first round of the playoffs, Markham faced Les Canadiennes. Of the nine aforementioned overtime games in the regular season, five were against Montréal. Five! What’s more, the Brampton Thunder were swept by Montréal in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. Brampton was outscored 2-12 in that series. Clearly, there was plenty of history between these two teams before their meeting in this year’s playoffs.
This season, Markham returned the favor, defeating Montréal 2-1 (OT) and 4-1 in the first round. Erica Howe made 34 stops in the win against Montréal in Game 1. She made another 27 stops and got four goals in support, including a hat trick by Jenna McParland.
Team MVP - Jamie Lee Rattray
The MVP of the CWHL — as voted by its players — posted 22 of the Thunder’s 79 goals in their championship season. In March, Connor Murphy wrote an excellent piece about Markham, which included some great stats analysis to place Rattray’s season into context.
Ahead of the playoffs, Rattray tallied at least one point in 16 consecutive regular season games. Her consistent production and exceptional forecheck made her a factor in each and every game the Thunder played this year.
Standout Rookie - Nicole Kosta
Nicole Kosta was out of the lineup for over half the season, but she still led all Thunder rookies with eight points in her 12 regular season games.
Additionally, Kosta took just one minor penalty and posted a +12 for the Thunder. Only Jamie Lee Rattray had a better plus/minus rating for Markham. The Thunder’s top pick from the 2017 CWHL Draft scored Markham’s first goal of the Clarkson Cup Playoffs. She also picked up two crucial assists in the Clarkson Cup Final against Kunlun Red Star, including the primary assist on Laura Stacey’s overtime winner.
It will be interesting to see what the champions will look like next season as they seek to defend their title. Rattray put the league on notice this year, and Liz Knox and Erica Howe were both excellent and gave their team a chance to win games more often than not. If Markham holds onto its core, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
However, as the women’s hockey landscape continues to expand — to China and elsewhere — one can never be too sure what will remain after the dust of the offseason settles. For now, the Thunder are deserving champions, embraced and celebrated by their new home.