Going into their 2017-18 regular season finale, Les Canadiennes de Montreal needed just one point to solidify the top spot in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Montreal edged out the Calgary Inferno 3-2 in front of a second straight sold out Complexe Sportif Bell to clinch the Chairman's Trophy as regular season champions for the second time in three years.
The game featured a couple of pivotal line changes as Olympians past and present Hilary Knight and Caroline Ouellette drew into the lineup, with Lore Baudrit and Erinn Noseworthy ceding their spots. Ouellette missed Saturday's game as she was in The Pas, Manitoba for the Good Deeds Cup. However, the real storyline and main focus heading into Sunday was the debut of Olympic gold medalist Knight, who signed with the team on Thursday.
“It’s awesome. It’s always a great day when you get to play the sport that you love,” said Knight. “But now to come back, play professionally and with amazing women, it’s definitely a special day.”
Les Canadiennes players gave Knight a rookie lap prior to the start of the game, something that amused the Olympic gold medalist, two-time NCAA champion, two-time Clarkson Cup champion, Isobel Cup champion, and seven-time world champion.
“I kinda knew it was coming, but I told them, ‘Hey guys, I’m not a rookie!’, “ said Knight, also a former CWHL Most Valuable Player, laughing. “But I am new here, so you just have to embrace it.”
In contrast to the game the night before, which started fairly quietly, Montreal roared out of the gate with veteran forward Noémie Marin tipped an Ann-Sophie Bettez wrist shot past Inferno goaltender Delaney Brian for her first of two on the night. She also assisted on the game winning goal. Marin said she didn't tip the shot but the official scoresheet has not yet been changed.
Marin, 33, who was recognized for her 200th career game prior to puck drop, and was tied with Ouellette for most regular season goals in CWHL history at 131 entering Sunday’s game, took sole possession of the record with 133 goals. Her second goal made sure she would enter the playoffs with the record, even if the first goal gets taken away.
“I’m honored, but as for what it means to me, I just want my fifth Clarkson Cup,” said Marin. “It’s my main objective. That’s why Caro[line Ouellette] came back, [Lauriane] Rougeau came back. It’s what we want.”
Just before the end of the first period, Brianne Jenner found a loose puck and beat Montreal goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer for her first of the season. The Olympian was in her fourth game back since returning from PyeongChang.
Les Canadiennes didn’t come out for the middle frame the way they had hoped, getting assessed two quick penalties, one being Knight sent off for body checking. However, the strong penalty kill by Montreal all game long didn’t allow Calgary to score with the advantage, blanking them on five opportunities.
Late in the frame, Inferno forward Dakota Woodworth undressed the defence with an inside out move before backhanding a shot five-hole through Maschmeyer’s legs.
But Les Canadiennes were resilient and in the last minute, on a five-on-three, a perfectly executed tic-tac-toe pass from Erin Ambrose saw Marin finish off a beautiful play with captain Ann-Sophie Bettez, and tied the game up at two-apiece with just 40.7 seconds left on the clock. The powerplay marker was their lone with the advantage despite having seven opportunities.
In the third minute of the third period, there was a scary moment near center ice as Marin collided with Inferno rookie Sophie Shirley (a player Marin coached at the Nations Cup earlier this year) and caused her helmet to cut her face between the eyes. She was bleeding, but skated off to dressing room on her power, and just a mere four minutes later, returned to the ice and finished the game.
With 2:19 left on the clock, Montreal broke the deadlock, when the top line of Bettez, Marin and Sarah Lefort connected again. This time, it was red-hot Lefort who jammed a rebound at the side of the net past Brian for her 18th of the season. It was the line's sixth goal of the weekend.
For Knight, she was a mere inches away from her first as a Canadienne when her shot on the empty net went just wide.
“I honestly didn’t know, I thought the time was running out,” joked Knight. “So I just threw it, I hope nobody judges me.”
With the win and the clinching of the number one seed, they will face off against the Markham Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, beginning next Friday evening at Arena Michel-Normandin.
In the five games between these two clubs this past season, Montreal won all of them, but each one had to be decided in extra time, three in overtime and two in the shootout.
To make matters more interesting, both teams have added players since they last met. Markham added Megan Bozek and Canadian Olympians Jocelyne Larocque, Laura Stacey and Laura Fortino. Montreal added Ouellette, Rougeau and Knight.
“They’ve been always physical games against [Markham], so I know we have to be disciplined to take them,” said Bettez. “We just can’t take too many penalties and hopefully capitalize when they do [take penalties].”
The schedule for the playoffs has game one Friday at 7:30 p.m. Game two goes Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and, if necessary, game three will be Sunday at 2:30 p.m. All three games will be at the Arena Michel-Normandin, but in game two, Markham will be considered the home team.