Don’t look now, but Les Canadiennes are struggling for the first time in close to two years. The two-time defending Clarkson Cup finalists have lost three of their last four games and have trailed in each of their last five games.
It started inconspicuously in Saint-Georges against the Boston Blades. Less than 24 hours after an 11-0 win against the Blades, Montreal trailed 2-1 in the second period against Boston. Boston’s lead would last close to 10 minutes before Montreal would tie the game up before scoring four more in the third period for a 6-2 win.
Then, the next weekend in Toronto, Montreal would take a 1-0 lead midway through the first. They would then give up the lead in the final seconds of the second before falling behind 2-1 in the third, the score they would lose by. The next day, Toronto would score three goals in the first 6:02 and hold on for a 3-2 lead.
This past weekend, Brampton had 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 leads before Montreal won 4-3 in overtime, and the next day, Montreal blew a 2-1 lead in a 3-2 overtime loss.
“It’s obvious that the league this year is really even,” said Caroline Ouellette. “All the teams are good, all the teams can win on any given day. Everyone can beat everyone.”
Brampton is currently in fourth place but has beaten every team ahead of them. Toronto took Calgary to overtime twice, and Boston, who is in last place, took Toronto to overtime. You take a game off, or run into a hot goaltender in this year’s CWHL and you may find yourself without a win.
“For us we need to get better and not take anything for granted,” said Canadiennes goaltender Charline Labonté. “Back in the years, we could just show up and win easily. But things have changed, the teams have improved and the win is up for grabs.”
The adversity seemingly came out of nowhere. Montreal won their first six games of the season in relatively easy fashion. They now find themselves 7-2-1, three points out of first. For reference, last year they were 21-3-0 for the entire regular season. They were 2-1 in the playoffs, losing only the final.
“We started the way we started last year,” said Montreal forward Karell Emard. “Last year we were confident, some games were easier than others. This year, the league is unreal. Last year, not that it was easy, but we kind of felt comfortable and we were challenged - not going to lie, but it was not as challenging as this year.”
Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle is attributed with the quote “no pressure, no diamond,” and for Les Canadiennes, they are looking at their struggles and looking at it to improve themselves.
“I think that these early games and knowing that we’re going to struggle and that we can come together and work through it is what is going to pay off down the road,” Emard said. “We’re going to be ready for that last game and we’re going to be ready to play against adversity and play with that urgency. We need it. And maybe we didn’t feel it early enough last year and it kind of slapped us in the face at the end of the year.”
The end of last year, in the Clarkson Cup final, Montreal fell behind 4-1 to a Calgary Inferno team that had entered their regular season finale having lost two straight games. In that last regular season game, Calgary would trail Brampton 3-0, only to come back and win 5-4.
Calgary would not trail for another second throughout their three playoff games. Montreal would lose that final game 8-3.
The high level of competition the league has provided Montreal with this season is something the team is embracing through the adversity.
“The harder it is, the better we become,” Canadiennes forward Katia Clement-Heydra said. “The better the other team comes at us, the better we have to be so we love these games. This is what our league should be all the time. We want to embrace it. Keep it coming.”
“We weren’t used to this and this year it’s going to happen,” Emard said. “We’re going to lose games. We just have to be aware. I think it was a wake up call and we need to accept it and battle through it.”
Now that isn’t to say that Les Canadiennes are doomed. The issues they are having are glaring, and should be fixable. All six of the goals Brampton scored this weekend were power play goals. Last season, Montreal allowed three power play goals. All season.
Their penalty kill that was effective 96.25% of the time last year (77/80) is now the worst shorthanded unit in the league at 76.3% (29/38).
“We’ve talked about it,” said Clement-Heydra about the team’s indiscipline. “It’s something we need to focus on and be better at.”
“The difference between winning and losing is starting when the puck drops and if we get scored on, not panicking,” said Emard. “I think that’s a huge a thing. ‘OK, they scored. Let’s come back.’”
But don’t expect drastic changes for Les Canadiennes.
“When it comes to our game plan, we’re sticking to our plan, we just need to execute it better,” Clement-Heydra said.