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CWHL Playoff preview: Thunder roll into Montreal to face Canadiennes

This CWHL semi-final has no shortage of star power

Shanna Martin

In a normal year, you can look at a season series between two teams and have a good idea of what to expect in the playoff series.

This CWHL semi-final between the Markham Thunder and Les Canadiennes is not one of those times. Yes, Montreal won all five games between the two teams but all five went to at least overtime, two of them into a shootout.

These teams were already very close. And to make things more interesting, eight players - all of which are expected to be in big roles - did not play a single game in the season series.

Five of those were playing for the United States or Canada at the most recent Olympics in PyeongChang.

Markham has three of the Olympians: Jocelyne Larocque, Laura Fortino, and Laura Stacey. Montreal has two, Hilary Knight and Lauriane Rougeau. On top of that, US National team member Megan Bozek (signed after the final game vs. Montreal) and 2017 first-round pick Nicole Kosta (injury) did not play for Markham in the season series. Neither did Caroline Ouellette for Montreal. In fact, the last time that Markham played Montreal, Ouellette was in the broadcast booth.

And there’s no shortage of top talent on display, either. On top of the five Olympians, there are another six who could have been in the Olympics or are top CWHL talent. Ann-Sophie Bettez (MTL) and Jamie Lee Rattray (MAR) were both MVP candidates this past season and are among the best forwards in the CWHL - with or without Olympians. Defenders Megan Bozek and Erin Ambrose (MTL) were both in camp with their respective Olympic teams this year. Goaltenders Erica Howe and Emerance Maschmeyer are both candidates for CWHL goaltender of the year and spent time as reserve goaltenders for Team Canada this year.

Basically, this series should be really, really good hockey and you might want to count on the games being close, and maybe even going beyond 60 minutes.

It may even end up as the closest playoff series in CWHL history. Since the CWHL moved to best-of-three semi-finals three years ago, there has never been an overtime game. In fact, there has only been one one-goal game. The last CWHL playoff game to go to overtime was in the 2013-14 season, ironically the last Olympic year, when the format was still a round robin.

And in case you’re wondering, the current playoff format in the CWHL playoffs would be 20 minute sudden death periods of 5 on 5 until there is a winner.

Season series at a glance

October 28, 2017: MONTREAL 1 @ MARKHAM 0 (OT)
October 29, 2017: MONTREAL 3 @ MARKHAM 2 (OT)
December 2, 2017: MONTREAL 3 @ MARKHAM 2 (SO)
December 16, 2017: MARKHAM 4 @ MONTREAL 5 (OT)
December 17, 2017: MARKHAM 1 @ MONTREAL 2 (SO)

“Towards the end of the five game series we were frustrated that we couldn’t take the extra point out of them,” said Jamie Lee Rattray. “But we had to ask ‘what do we take out of this?’. We’re doing something right if we’re playing this well against the best team in the league.”

Shanna Martin

Top Performers

Emerance Maschmeyer (MTL): 5-0-0, 1.70 GAA, .936%
Karell Emard (MTL): 5GP 1G, 4A, 5PTS
Cathy Chartrand (MTL): 5GP, 3G, 1A, 4PTS
Marion Allemoz (MTL): 5GP, 2G, 2A, 4PTS
Ann-Sophie Bettez (MTL): 5GP, 2G, 1A, 3PTS
Erin Ambrose (MTL): 2GP, 0G, 3A, 3PTS
Sarah Lefort (MTL): 5GP, 2G, 1A, 3PTS
Noémie Marin (MTL): 5GP, 1G, 2A, 3PTS

Erica Howe (MAR): 0-0-3, 2.51 GAA, .925%
Liz Knox (MAR): 0-0-2, 1.89 GAA, .935%
Jamie Lee Rattray (MAR): 5GP, 4G, 5A, 9PTS (point on every Markham goal)
Laura McIntosh (MAR): 4GP, 2G, 3A, 5PTS
Kristen Richards (MAR): 5GP, 2G, 2A, 4PTS

The Thunder are rolling

  • Jamie Lee Rattray had a point on every Markham goal in the season series. In fact, her and her linemates Laura McIntosh and Kristen Richards were the only forwards on the Thunder to get a point in the season series.

But Montreal can't just focus on Rattray's line. That's because the new line of Olympian Laura Stacey, 2017 first-round pick Nicole Kosta and Jenna McParland had a lot of success. In their first game together last week in Boston, the trio combined for four goals.

“I think we had great speed and communication which transferred into our instant chemistry together,” McParland said.

  • Megan Bozek, Jocelyne Larocque and Laura Fortino also completely change Markham's defence. The previous top pairing the last time Montreal faced Markham is now essentially the third pairing. Not only did they get more depth, they also are really good and among the best defenders in the world.
  • The Thunder like to split goaltending duties. Last year, their coach Tyler Fines said before the series that he was going to split Erica Howe and Liz Knox in the first two games so that Howe would be fresh for a potential third game. It will be interesting to see how new coach Jim Jackson deals with his two-headed monster in goal.
  • Markham comes into the playoffs on an unbelievable streak. Their last loss in regulation was November 24 against the Kunlun Red Star in China. A span of 16 games (11-0-5). Their last regulation loss in North America was November 5 in Calgary. They started the year 3-7-2.

“I think our team realized we were a lot better than how we were playing earlier in the season and needed to turn it around before it was too late,” McParland said. “We are now all on the same page and understand we have so much more to prove.”

“I'm not sure if there was one thing. We kind of woke up and said as a team that we didn't really want to lose anymore,” said Rattray. “[Coach Jim Jackson] has been amazing in building what we’re doing, [telling us] ‘we’re doing the right things. Don’t worry it’s going to come’. That’s the biggest thing for us. We knew we were doing the right things early on we just needed to execute little things a bit better and that’s what we’ve done over this stretch.”

“The team as a whole has come together to play some of the best hockey that I’ve seen,” said Bozek. “There are no selfish individuals. It’s a good group that supports each other.”

“None of the teams really know what to expect from us,” Bozek continued. “With myself being added and the three Olympians coming back, we are a whole new team and it’s pretty scary to think about that. The team was doing well and now we’re on a roll with more depth in our lineup.”

A budding rivalry

Markham (previously Brampton) and Montreal games have always been physical. With a new coach and new faces Markham hasn't been as penalized as they were in past years. Normally at the top of the list in penalty minutes, they find themselves third - actually behind Montreal.

Shanna Martin / Eyes on the Prize

“From the first year I’ve been in the league it’s always been a physical team,” said Bettez. “It’s nice to get physical as long as it’s within the rules. It’s definitely going to be a physical series.”

Last year, Montreal swept the series in two games by scores of 7-1 and 5-1. But Les Canadiennes should expect a different team this go around.

“I think we’re more ready and more mature as a team this year compared to last season,” said McParland. “Our team dynamic is dialed in and prepared for playoff hockey.”

“Those games last year, the scores weren’t descriptive of how the games went,” Rattray said. “We ran into a team last year that was hot at the right time and we played well but when it came down to it they were just better than us.”

“It was like deja vu,” said Stacey about finding out the Thunder were coming back to Montreal a year later. “We were pretty crushed by how that turned out [last year].”

From friends to foes

For two members of Les Canadiennes, they will face off against former Olympic teammates that they know very well. Hilary Knight will face off against Megan Bozek while Lauriane Rougeau will face Stacey, Larocque, and her Team Canada roommate Laura Fortino.

For Knight, this will be the fourth straight year she will face Bozek in a professional playoff series. The streak started in the CWHL in 2015 when Knight was with the Boston Blades and Bozek with the Toronto Furies. The last two years, in 2016 and 2017, Knight’s Boston Pride faced off against Bozek’s Buffalo Beauts in the NWHL’s Isobel Cup. This year, it’s the Canadiennes and the Thunder.

And for those keeping track, the two split the two Isobel Cups, with Bozek winning the most recent battle. Knight has a 2-1 edge overall as her Blades won the series and the Clarkson Cup that year. It also means that the winner of a Knight-Bozek series has won the championship in the end.

“I’m so excited,” Knight said. “I can’t wait to see her. She’s a tremendous player. I hope I don’t get hit with one of her shots unless it’s to block a goal.”

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 - Canada v United States Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Bozek, it should be noted, won the NWHL’s Hardest Shot competition in the league’s first season.

“I’ve known Hilary for a long time and we’ve been friends for a while,” Bozek said. “I think it’s a huge addition to the league to have her back in the CWHL and showcasing her talent after a gold medal. It’s tough to play against her, I don’t like to play against her. I’d rather have her on my side but it will be a very good matchup this weekend.”

For Rougeau, she is also looking forward to the matchup.

“It’s going to be fun but when you’re on the ice there are no friends even though I’ve been roommates with Fortino for many years and all year,” she said. “It’s going to be a new challenge. Markham has been pushing very hard the last month. They’re a good team and we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Les Canadiennes projected lineup

Forwards

Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
16- Sarah Lefort 10- Noémie Marin 24- Ann-Sophie Bettez
88- Kayla Tutino 19- Katia Clement-Heydra 76- Karell Emard
13- Caroline Ouellette 21- Hilary Knight 9- Kim Deschênes
47- Emmanuelle Blais 39- Marion Allemoz 78- Tracy-Ann Lavigne

Defence

Left Defence Right Defence
Left Defence Right Defence
5- Lauriane Rougeau 14- Erin Ambrose
17- Melanie Desrochers 8- Cathy Chartrand
23- Sophie Brault 91- Laurence Beaulieu
11- Natalie Barrette

Goaltenders

Goaltenders
Goaltenders
38- Emerance Maschmeyer
35- Marie-Soleil Deschênes

Markham Thunder projected lineup

Forwards

Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Left Wing Centre Right Wing
26- Jamie Lee Rattray 9- Kristen Richards 15- Laura McIntosh
7- Laura Stacey 22- Nicole Kosta 91- Jenna McParland
44- Ellie Seedhouse 25- Taylor Woods 21- Devon Skeats
96- Karolina Urban 2- Becca King 16- Fielding Montgomery

Defence

Left Defence Right Defence
Left Defence Right Defence
3- Jocelyne Larocque 8- Laura Fortino
94- Megan Bozek 23- Lindsay Grigg
19- Dania Simmonds 24- Kristen Barbara
10- Alexis Woloschuk

Goaltenders

Goaltenders
Goaltenders
27- Erica Howe
37- Liz Knox

Series schedule

Game One
Fri, March 16: 7:30 p.m. EDT @ Michel Normandin Arena

Game Two (Markham gets last change and is considered the home team)
Sat, March 17: 7:30 p.m. EDT @ Bell Sports Complex, Brossard (CWHL Live)

Game Three (if necessary)
Sun, March 18: 2:30 p.m. EDT @ Michel Normandin Arena (CWHL Live)

Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the door or are available in advance here