After six months of regular season battles across two continents, the dust has settled and the CWHL playoff picture is clear. The top seed Les Canadiennes de Montréal and the streaking Markham Thunder will face off this weekend in Montréal, Québec. Meanwhile in Markham, Ontario, newcomers Kunlun Red Star will play host to the visiting Calgary Inferno. Each series will be a best-of-three format with games played from Friday, March 16 through to Sunday, March 18 if a third game is necessary.
The final week of the CWHL regular season set the stage for storylines in these semi-finals. The playoff seeding and qualifying teams were up for grabs until the final weekend. Olympic stars returned from PyeongChang to join the top teams in the CWHL. All four teams are prepared for the playoffs.
On the docket for today: Les Canadiennes de Montréal vs. Markham Thunder. Here’s how their road to the Clarkson Cup begins.
Numbers Can Be Liars
Montréal’s immaculate record in the head-to-head matchup are deceiving when you look at the record of the Markham Thunder. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you: every game between these teams has required an overtime or a shootout to decide a winner. Montréal has emerged the victor in all of those contests. However, if a change of fate rests on a single bounce across more than sixty minutes of play, then it’s safe to assume that these teams are more evenly matched than the numbers suggest.
The Teams They Are a-Changin’
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, I examined how the Markham Thunder were a different team in the second half of the season than they were in the first. They extended their incredible streak with two wins in the final two games of the season against the Boston Blades. Markham earned at least a point in their final 16 games, including seven straight wins. With the return of Jocelyne Larocque, Laura Fortino, and Laura Stacey, the Thunder seem to have added enough to turn the tide of their one-goal woes against Montréal.
However, Montréal has made some changes of their own. Les Canadiennes have stood right at the top of the standings since the regular season started in October. They never went more than one game without earning at least a point. Veteran defender Lauriane Rougeau returned to Les Canadiennes to bolster the blue line, but another Olympian stole the headlines with her decision to join Montréal. In an unexpected twist, U.S Olympian Hilary Knight has joined the club in time for the playoffs. The star forward formerly played for the Boston Blades and has spent the last two seasons playing for the Boston Pride of the NWHL. Adding Knight has made the best team in the CWHL even better.
All For One Or One For All
One of the greatest strengths of Les Canadiennes is their offensive depth. Montréal is the only team to have three players finish the season with 30 or more points. Leading the way is Ann-Sophie Bettez with 39, including 19 goals. Following her are Noémie Marin and Sarah Lefort with 33 and 31 points respectively, each scoring 18 goals. Not far behind them is Katia Clement-Heydra with 27 points. The addition of Hilary Knight provides Les Canadiennes with yet another star player capable of scoring on any shift. Shutting down multiple lines replete with offensive weapons for 60 minutes or longer is a daunting task, but it is one that Markham will have to be up to if they want to continue their Cinderella run.
Across the rink stands a woman alone — Jamie Lee Rattray. The Kanata, Ontario native has single-handedly driven the offense for Markham all season long. Her 39 points leads the team by a considerable margin. A 16-point gap separates her from Kristen Richards, the Thunder’s second best point producer with 23 points. Rattray either scored or assisted on 49% of all 79 Markham goals during regulation and overtime play this season. (Markham’s season total of 81 goals includes the two extraneous tallies awarded to the winner of a shootout reflected in the final score).
Laura Stacey’s return to the team shows promise of adding another scoring threat, but the brunt of the burden still falls on Rattray. Whether or not she can continue to find the scoresheet may very well determine the fate of the Thunder.
These two teams last met on December 17, 2017. That seems like a lifetime ago, especially when taking into account the way that the season and rosters have developed for both teams in the ensuing three months. Montréal has consistently shown why they are the best team in the league, but Markham is on a roll that could leave anyone in their wake. Les Canadiennes and the Thunder are accustomed to playing overtime thrillers this season. Don’t be shocked if this series takes three games with some extra time involved as well.
Tough prediction? Montréal takes the series 2-1. Easy prediction? It will be must-see hockey.