The Brampton Thunder's season was on the line this weekend. If they had somehow managed 3 wins out of their last 4 games of the season, they could have sneaked past the Toronto Furies for the 4th spot in the Clarkson Cup tournament. But they came up against the Blades, who are on a tear, and have taken over the #1 seed in the CWHL standings after this weekend's showing. The Furies have played all 24 of their games for the year, and will stick at 19 points and 4th seed. But the other four teams in the CWHL have one more series to go, and the final matchups will all be determined next weekend, with the other three spots in the standings being too close to call.
Saturday night's game was out at Milton Academy, a comparatively remote location in snow-stricken Eastern Massachusetts. The Blades went up 2-0 on goals from Monique Lamoureux and Casey Pickett, but the Thunder would pull even before the end of the period, first with a goal from Ellie Seedhouse and then a power play goal from Laura Fortino with just 8 seconds left before the buzzer. The Blades took the lead back on a goal from Jordan Smelker in the second, but the floodgates really opened in the third, when the Thunder took three penalties nearly back-to-back. Decker and Tara Watchorn would score the power play goals for the Blades to go up 5-2. The Thunder pulled goaltender Erica Howe with over three minutes to play, and Pickett would get her second of the night on an empty netter. The Thunder only put 14 shots on Geneviève Lacasse, including a 2-shot performance in the second period.
Sunday afternoon's game, back at the Clark Athletic Center at UMass Boston, was a quick turnaround for the teams and a must-win situation for the Brampton Thunder, and it proved to be a physical affair. The Blades had Nicole Stock in net for her first professional start, after having dressed her for the first time at her high school alma mater Choate Rosemary Hall a few weeks ago. The Thunder went to Liz Knox.
Just a few minutes into Stock's debut, she was forced to make a save on a 3-on-1 rush, and then had to face the Brampton power play. The Blades got a power play of their own, though, and Brianna Decker put them up 1-0. The Thunder would very quickly become shorthanded again after Dania Simmonds took Jill Dempsey down hard in the neutral zone, and again when Jocelyne Larocque went off for interference. The Thunder would pull off some hard work on the penalty kill, however, and the score would remain 1-0.
Brampton didn't start the second period much better, having to kill a 5-on-3 almost right away. Again, though, they worked hard to kill the clock, and it seemed like momentum might be shifting. But Boston kept their offensive focus, and tilted the ice in their favor. The Thunder negated their own power play by taking a bench minor for too many skaters, and on the ensuing shortened advantage for the Blades, Brianna Decker netted her second on a snipe from the left circle, after having been denied on a breakaway just a few seconds before. Knox stood tall for the rest of the period to keep the score tight.
Decker assisted on yet another goal early in the third, taking the puck into the zone and around the net, throwing it out in front from behind the goal line. Rachel Llanes was able to tap it past Knox to put the Blades up 3-0. The teams exchanged power plays again, and Stock withstood some good chances. With just 2:32 to go, Dempsey iced the game with a shot from right in the slot, thanks to a perfect pass from the far boards from Corinne Buie. The Blades would win the game 4-0.
Meghan Duggan had a strong game for the Blades, frequently placing herself in a scoring position in front of the net and receiving great passes from Jenny Potter, but Brampton defended her well. Jordan Smelker and Jessica Koizumi didn't show on the scoresheet on Sunday but frequently fueled extended shifts in the offensive zone with strong play down low.
Brianna Decker now has 30 points in just 10 games this season. The Blades have played a strong team game down the lineup all season, so while the addition of a great goal scorer like Decker unsurprisingly gives them an offensive lift, the 3-points-per-game pace is still impressive. She attributed her scoring pace to her teammates' hard work. "Honestly, I know it sounds cliche in some interviews, but they've been feeding me well. I've been getting the puck no matter who I've been playing with," she said after Sunday's game. "They've been supporting me, even all the girls who I'm not playing with."
The Blades finish their regular season next weekend in Montreal. The Clarkson Cup begins on March 4 in Markham, Ontario with a new structure. The four teams in the tournament will play two best-of-three series in a 1v4 and 2v3 format, with the winners of those series going on to face each other for the Clarkson Cup in a single elimination game.