Clarkson Cup Playoff Preview: Kunlun vs. Markham

<em>Red Star and Thunder battle for Clarkson Cup history on Sunday.</em>

The Clarkson Cup.

A grueling six-month journey through remarkable winning streaks, overtime thrillers, and lingering injuries comes to an end tomorrow afternoon. Their ultimate goal — the only goal — is before them now. The Markham Thunder and Kunlun Red Star have written storybook seasons. Only one of them will write their names down in the record books. Tomorrow, one team will lift the Clarkson Cup as champions of the CWHL.

Who will it be?

Can Thunder Shock the World?

The Thunder have played an exciting brand of hockey in their first year in Markham. They continued their unbelievable regular season results into a first-round sweep of first place Les Canadiennes de Montréal. Now the Thunder hope to continue this stellar streak against Red Star. In order to do so, they will have to find goals against the best goaltender in the league: Noora Räty.

The power play may be the key to success for Markham. Kunlun has devloped a bad habit of cutting deep ruts to the penalty box, especially Angela James Bowl winner Kelli Stack. Red Star surrendered power play goals in the first two games against the Calgary Inferno before shutting them out in the decisive third game. The Thunder tallied a power play goal of their own in their series against Montréal. They were not afforded many opportunities by Les Candiennes, but Red Star have played with fire too often this postseason. Markham’s firepower may burn them for it.

Will Red Star Rise to the Occasion?

Kunlun’s postseason success was going to be determined by Noora Räty’s ability to stop the puck. They have made it to the final thanks to her. Her historic performance in Game Three of the semi-finals will not be forgotten any time soon. In fact, it was so brilliant that it overshadowed another notable story of the series. Red Star struggled to score on an Inferno team which had allowed the most goals of any team to make the playoffs. They have relied on Kelli Stack and Räty to lead the way, but that is a dangerous game to play in a one-game series.

The Kunlun forward group, with stars like Stack, Zoe Hickel, and Alex Carpenter, will need to provide some goal support if they want to win. This will be a difficult task due to perhaps the most underappreciated story of the past few months in the CWHL. Markham’s goaltenders have been brick walls as of late, a truth that high-flying Montréal found out the hard way at the worst time.

Erica Howe has been incredible in her recent starts and has earned both playoff wins. Backup Liz Knox has held down the fort when called upon, giving the Thunder a valuable 1A-1B combination between the pipes. Howe has emerged as the starter this postseason and proven her worth. Whether or not she is able to hold off Kunlun’s superstars may be the deciding factor of the championship game.

Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object

Jamie Lee Rattray and Noora Räty — the unstoppable force and the immovable object. A clash of titans will take center stage on the ice at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto, Ontario. Perhaps no two players have been as important to their respective teams as these two, with an honorable mention to Boston’s Lauren Dahm.

Something has to give. Rattray’s blazing pace over the past three months will be put to the test against Räty. If this game can boiled down to a matchup between just two players, these are the candidates. Their teams have gone as they have and their chance to raise the Cup has rested on their shoulders all season long. With one final game standing between them and glory, one can expect nothing but their best performance.

While stars like Rattray, Räty, Stack, and Howe will grab the headlines, unlikely heroes may emerge and steal the spotlight. Such is the nature of a single-elimination game. Both teams have earned key contributions from lesser known players these playoffs. Jenna McParland scored a hat trick to clinch Markham’s berth in the finals. Jessica Wong has been a standout on the Kunlun blue line and picked up a postseason-leading three assists. Who will emerge to lead their team to the Clarkson Cup?

Tough prediction? Markham wins the Clarkson Cup in overtime thanks to special teams and Erica Howe. Easy prediction? Both goaltenders will put on a show for the ages.