As the 2018-19 CWHL season returns to action in the wake of the All-Star Game, the landscape of the league is equal parts certainty and uncertainty.
Let’s start with what’s certain: the Worcester Blades, who have yet to win a hockey game this season, are already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They have, unfortunately, done little to lose the label of being the league’s worst hockey team. Meanwhile, the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montréal are not only locks for the postseason, they’re also the clear favorites to win the 2019 Clarkson Cup.
What’s uncertain is who will be joining the Inferno and Les Canadiennes in the postseason. Three teams — the Markham Thunder, the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, and the Toronto Furies — are currently slugging it out to claim the last two seeds for the playoffs. And with the CWHL regular season wrapping up on Feb. 24, things are about to get interesting.
The Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays
Interestingly enough, the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, who are currently third in the standings with 23 points, have the most difficult schedule remaining of the group. Shenzhen has already swept their season series against Worcester, which leaves them with three games against the Furies and three games against the Inferno to wrap up the season.
The good news for Alex Carpenter and the Rays is that their last six games of the season will all be played in China. The bad news is that they are 0-4-1-0 in their last five home games and the Inferno have out-scored them 13-3 in their previous three meetings. Shenzhen will need to get the best of Toronto in their upcoming series to secure a spot in the playoffs, but that will be easier said than done.
The Toronto Furies
The Furies have the most ground to make up of the teams that are still in the hunt, but they do control their own fate.
Toronto is five points behind the Thunder, but have three games in hand over Shenzhen and will be wrapping up their season at home against the Blades. That’s pretty much four guaranteed points that the Rays can’t say they have. Yep, this could really go right down to the wire.
Adding intrigue to all of this is the fact that the Furies’ play is on a dramatic upswing. Toronto, led by Sarah Nurse and Natalie Spooner, is 5-5-0 in their last 10 games. That record might not look all too impressive, but the Furies played six consecutive road games in Calgary and Montréal before the All-Star break. They managed to upset the Inferno twice in that stretch. For that reason alone, we can’t count out this young, exciting team.
The Markham Thunder
The Greater Toronto Area’s other team, the Markham Thunder, also have two games left against the Blades and three games in hand on the Rays. Unfortunately, the reigning Clarkson Cup champions also have four games against Montréal left on their schedule. Much like Toronto and Shenzhen, Markham has failed to measure up against Les Canadiennes this year. The Thunder may be the reigning champs, but they have a lot to prove in the next four weeks.
The must-win series for the Thunder, fittingly enough, begins on Feb. 16 when they begin their home-and-home series against the rival Furies. There will be another game between the two GTA teams before the regular season wraps up, but we still don’t know the date for that contest. That as-of-yet unscheduled game could have a huge impact on which teams will appear in the 2019 Clarkson Cup Playoffs.
The Thunder’s offense this season has been led by Victoria Bach, who has 16 primary points in her rookie season. Markham’s veterans need to step up like they did last year. In addition, the team’s depth offense needs to rise to the occasion in the home stretch and provide more goal support for Erica Howe and Liz Knox. The Thunder have the talent and the heart to upset Calgary and Montréal, but they won’t get that chance if they fail to make the playoffs.
Data courtesy of Jeff Craig’s CWHL Tracker and the author’s own stat tracking.