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‘You saw the true Les Canadiennes. This is us.’ - Montreal’s stormy stretch forged a new identity

Montreal is starting to come together as the season reaches its most important point.

Shanna Martin / CWHL

To say that Les Canadiennes’ trip to Calgary in November was the low point of their season would be quite the understatement.

The team had to deal with the surprise resignation of their head coach Dany Brunet, they lost Mélodie Daoust (who may have been playing the best hockey of her career), and oh yeah, they also lost both games to the team they are chasing for first place in the CWHL including the second on a goal with under 30 seconds left.

“That weekend was a good weekend for us to reflect on what we need to work on going forward,” said Montreal goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer. “The emotions were low after that but we’ve done a good job bouncing back.”

Caroline Ouellette coached the team that weekend in Calgary without much preparation time, and was officially announced as associate coach a few weeks later and is helped by Danièle Sauvageau as well as Valerie Bois (the only bench coach who has been with the team all season) and Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux.

“To be honest I think we had parked the trip to Calgary,” Ouellette said. “It was an emotional week. Coaches changing... We came out of the plane, played at altitude back to back. The word was to forget about that weekend and it was after that we started to work together and focus on the details of the game.”

“You could tell that the girls are enjoying playing for one another and that’s the ingredient that builds really good teams,” Ouellette said.

Montreal lost the first game of the weekend series against the Inferno before beating them the next day. It was a big test for the team.

“Calgary has a good team we know they’re going to make good plays but so can we,” Ouellette said.

“We’ve changed our identity. We’ve become a family since the last time we played them. This weekend was our redemption,” said Canadiennes forward Karell Emard. “We wanted to send them the message that we’re going to be here. We’re not going to just roll over and let them have it. You saw the true Les Canadiennes. This is us. [Captain Marie-Philip Poulin] said it in the room: This is where the bar is set. Now we always need to play like that.”

“It was two of the best games I’ve played in the CWHL,” said forward Ann-Sophie Bettez, now in her seventh season and who just moved into second in all-time CWHL scoring. “We set the bar for our team in terms of standards that we can’t sink lower than what we showed this weekend. We showed we’re a fast team, we can move the puck quick and no matter who we play that’s the attitude we need to bring and we need to keep getting better from here on.”

They also split the series without Daoust, who remains out but has been skating with the team. But even that adversity has brought its share of positives. The line of Jill Saulnier, Poulin and Bettez has been the best line in the entire CWHL, and it has allowed players like Emard, Katia Clement-Heydra, Geneviève Bannon, and Sarah Lefort to step up and prove they can play against the other team’s top players.

“I’ve always had the philosophy that it’s not who’s missing it’s who’s there and ready to step up,” Ouellette said.

Despite having the top two scorers in the league and four of the top eight, since Ouellette took over it has been defence that has been the focus. Les Canadiennes have the most goals and fewest goals allowed in the league. Their +63 goal differential is 20 better than any other team but they remain two points back of first place.

“It’s easy to talk about offence but unfortunately when we break down in the [defensive] zone that’s when we let in goals,” said Maschmeyer.

It seemed to pay off. After allowing five goals in the first of two games against Calgary, the team made adjustments and shut out the Inferno in a 3-0 win.

Both teams have five games remaining and play the last place Worcester Blades twice. Calgary will then head to China to face the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays while Montreal will host the Toronto Furies for one game and the Markham Thunder for two.

CWHL Standings

CALGARY 23 18 4 1 37 90 47
MONTREAL 23 17 5 1 35 99 36
MARKHAM 23 12 8 3 27 77 67
SHENZHEN 25 13 11 1 27 72 58
TORONTO 22 9 13 0 18 45 67
WORCESTER 22 0 22 0 0 16 124