Les Canadiennes won the regular-season title, but the Markham Thunder may very well be the best team in the CWHL.
The Thunder extended their winning streak to eight games dating back to the regular season, and have not lost in regulation in 18 games.
On Sunday, a hat trick from Jenna McParland led the Thunder to a 4-1 victory at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard as they swept their best-of-three series in two games and will move on to the Clarkson Cup Final.
It is the first time in four years that Montreal will not play for the CWHL championship.
“The entire series, it’s clear the final result was a question of attitude and executing the details,” said Canadiennes head coach Dany Brunet.
“The details of the game [were the difference],” said Caroline Ouellette. “We got outworked. They had this energy and they felt that they wanted it more than us. Our best player was [goaltender Emerance] Maschmeyer. The quality of chances that we gave them was better than ours.”
“Unfortunately they had that edge that we had last year because we had been unsuccessful in the Final and we went for it and weren’t on our toes in that final game, and this series it was Markham that was better,” she continued.
Montreal actually opened the scoring when Sarah Lefort pounced on a loose puck on the power play to beat Erica Howe at 11:24 of the first period.
The lead was short lived, however, as Markham bounced right back. McParland scored her first of the night when Montreal turned the puck over with Maschmeyer behind her net, and the goaltender never had time to fully recover before the puck ended up in the net. The goal came just 18 seconds after Lefort’s goal.
“We didn’t lose our focus much in the game, but we lost our focus there and it was one time too many,” said Brunet.
While the momentum was on Markham’s side after the equalizer, the game remained tied until the third period, with both Maschmeyer and Howe putting together another goaltending duel.
“It’s huge,” said Hilary Knight about the quick Markham goal. “It changed the momentum of the game, but if anything I’m proud of how our girls fought.”
After a scoreless second period, Markham had an opportunity when Jamie Lee Rattray, who scored the overtime-winner in Game One, hit the crossbar behind Maschmeyer. Rattray looked to open the scoring in the game’s first minute as well when she put the puck past Maschmeyer, but it was ruled that she punched it in.
Montreal then got into penalty trouble in the final period. On the first penalty, Maschmeyer was forced to make a diving save on the doorstep.
After they got the kill, Kim Deschênes had a couple of chances in front of Howe, but she was unable to beat the CWHL goaltender-of-the-year nominee.
Then, with Deschênes in the box, McParland scored her second of the game with a wrist shot from the left circle that beat Maschmeyer on her glove side.
“We took penalties and opened the door, and they took advantage,” said Brunet.
Just over four minutes later, McParland completed the hat trick after a Montreal turnover in the defensive zone. She had just one goal in her previous five career CWHL playoff games.
“This feeling I have ... I can’t explain it. We went into this weekend thinking that we were going to win, and we did,” said McParland.
Montreal would push to get back into it, but Markham seemed content to hold the blue line and clear the zone. Rattray ended up with the empty-net goal to seal the game, and the series.
For Markham, it is their first Clarkson Cup Final appearance in six years, and for the core of Rattray, Howe, and team captain Jocelyne Larocque, among others, it is their first ever Clarkson Cup appearance.
“[Friday] was my first CWHL playoff win, and this is obviously going to be my first Clarkson Cup, so this is a big reason I came back.... The real reason I came back was just to be part of the team, and to make to the Clarkson Cup is amazing,” said Larocque, who played four regular-season games after coming back from the PyeongChang Olympics.
For Montreal, it was Knight's best game as a member of the Canadiennes. She had chances throughout the match, but wasn't able to get on the scoresheet in her three games with the team.
“It’s impossible that one regular-season game could adapt her to the team. In her defence, we moved her around a lot too,” said Brunet. “We played her at centre, at wing, on the third line, on the second line. On the power play, she played everywhere trying to find a spark too. It’s obvious it’s impossible to adapt to a team with one game, but I think she still did well.”
“When you lace up the skates at the start of the day, it’s 50/50 and you have to sway the odds in your favour, and we didn’t do that tonight,” Knight said. “I really wanted to win for this group of women. I think that’s what stings the most. They were super welcoming and we just didn’t get the job done at the end of the night.”
And with the end of the season, Caroline Ouellette faced questions about her future. She had lobbied Lauriane Rougeau to return after PyeongChang saying that it could be her final year. Ouellette, who missed most of the year after giving birth to her daughter, Liv, didn't say if this was her final game.
“I’ll take some time to think about it and see how it will go. It’s definitely harder than I thought,” Ouellette said. “It’s hard to find the speed back after you give birth and I have the utmost respect for the women who have done it — Cheryl Pounder, Becky Kellar, Meaghan Mikkelson — it’s difficult. It changes your body a lot and it changes your life. I’m glad I did it. I had a lot of fun with the girls. We had a great group.”
And now, the Thunder get to return home and will get to stay there. With the Clarkson Cup back in Toronto at the Ricoh Coliseum, Markham will be the home favourite.
“Coming in fourth place in the regular season and getting home-ice advantage for the Clarkson Cup works really well, so we’ll try to use that to our advantage,” said Larocque.
The Kunlun Red Star and Calgary Inferno play the third and deciding game of their series today, ironically in Markham. The winner will face the Thunder in the Clarkson Cup Final on March 25.