The Centennial Centre is an unlikely spot for high-stakes, intense playoff hockey, but the four CWHL playoff teams delivered just that at the 2300-seat rink today in Markham, Ontario. It's actually a community center for Markham, which befits the vibe of the CWHL. Players roam the lobby and the stands before and after the games, talking with their families, CWHL volunteers/staff, and fans, giving a sense of just how close-knit the women's hockey community is. The tournament kicked off in that spirit this morning at 11AM--bright and early by professional hockey standards--with Game 1 of a possible 3 between the Toronto Furies and the Boston Blades (heavily attended by local Ontario schoolchildren).
The first period put in doubt all predictions that the Blades would run away with this series. Captain Hilary Knight returned to the team from a lower-body injury, and started on a line with Decker and Casey Pickett. That line was doubleshifted all game, and had plenty of chances to open the scoring in the first period, including several odd-man rushes, but the Furies' Christina Kessler was equal to the task. The Furies had tightened up their team defense, however, and were much stronger clogging up passing lanes with their sticks and maintaining good body position at their own blueline. They also outshot the Blades in the first period, keeping Geneviève Lacasse quite busy.
Lacasse began the second period much the same way, with Prevost and Spooner bearing down in her crease as she snatched a puck out of midair. Christina Kessler was also dialed in, though, and the Furies had plenty of opportunities to score first as the Blades gave them four power play opportunities in the first and second periods. However, the Furies were unable to convert, as their league-worst power play from the regular season still hasn't found its groove. Kessler even stood on her head for shorthanded chances, making saves on Monique Lamoureux and Jessica Koizumi after the puck was given away in the Furies zone. At the other end, Lacasse made a toe save on Prevost, who was trying to finish on a 3-on-1. The Blades responded to Lacasse's hard work, and began to crash Kessler's net more frequently, but they still couldn't beat her.
The floodgates finally opened in the third period, for (who else?) Brianna Decker. She put her first in following a scramble in front of Kessler at just 2:29 of the third. Kessler stood tall for the next ten minutes through many minutes of Blades power play time, but Decker would find a seam again, coming out from behind the net on the power play to rip the puck to the back of the net. The game had a wild finish, with Lacasse preserving her shutout during a determined 5-on-3 for the Furies. Decker completed her natural hat trick with an empty netter, and the Blades would take a 3-0 victory and a 1-0 series lead.
Quotes, odds and ends
- The Blades were without two of their regular forwards, Jordan Smelker and Jillian Dempsey, due to cancelled flights. They did not dress a backup goaltender. Brittany Ott was unavailable due to an academic obligation. All three will join the team for Thursday's Game 2.
- Hilary Knight, on how she is feeling: "Tired. No, I was chomping at the bit to get back. I've been out for six weeks, but I definitely felt it today. Especially through doubleshifting. I was like oh my goodness! So you definitely have to appreciate the times that you're in hockey shape." On how to keep beating Kessler: "Just get more shots on net. I don't think Christina Kessler gets enough credit for what she does. She really anchors that team. She's a phenomenal player."
- Brianna Decker, on their gameplan for tomorrow, depth at forward, and playing with Knight: "Our team is gonna come out the same. We played well today. Supported each other a lot. It'll be good to have Dempsey and Smelker back. Adds a little more depth to our lineup. I hadn't really played much with Knighter until this year, which is surprising, since we played at Wisconsin and on the US team together, but it's been good. She makes the game a lot easier, moves the puck really well, and I know what she's going to do with it." On the physical battles along the boards in this series so far: "It's gonna be like that. It's a championship tournament. It's gonna be physical out there. That's what's fun though."
- Geneviève Lacasse, on seeing more shots from Toronto and her defense: "It's nice getting a little bit more pucks. I guess it's easier to stay in the game when you're getting more shots. I think my D and my forwards did a good job letting me see lanes on those penalty kills. I was able to see pretty much every shot. They made my job easy. Any time there was a rebound, it was out of there. They protected me." On the final minutes of the game with Toronto on the power play: "Puck by puck, shift by shift. . .I was hoping they'd dump it in on me and I'd have a chance to score. They didn't, unfortunately, but Decker was able to put one in there for us and that sealed the deal."
- Christina Kessler, on her performance: "It seemed like the bounces were going my way, and I thought our defense and forwards were playing a lot better in our D-zone. I know I gave up a couple of really bad rebounds, and they were around to save me there. Kudos to them." On history repeating itself: "Last Clarkson Cup, we went in, we ended up losing our first game against Boston [ed. note: in round robin play; Toronto would beat Boston in the Final]. We have tomorrow. If we play like we did today, and score a few more goals, or score some goals, we might hopefully be playing on Friday."
That Other Series
The Montreal Stars took Game 1 against the Calgary Inferno, backed by a strong shutout performance by Charline Labonté (30 saves). The Inferno had their chances, including many by Rebecca Johnston, but the game opened up with a goal in the second by Caroline Oullette, who got behind the defense, and the Stars never looked back. They went on to get goals from Noémie Marin, Kim Deschênes, and Ann-Sophie Bettez. They won by a final score of 4-0, and went up 1-0 in their series as well.
- Rebecca Johnston, on being more careful defensively against Montreal: "Montreal has a lot of speed. For us, our pinches, we have to be careful, and if our D do pinch we have to make sure we have that F3 high and that they're back and helping support. I think that's something we struggled with today. Tomorrow I think we'll be better. It'll be a new game."
- Caroline Oullette, on her goal: "I was just coming off a change and it was an incredible play by Mariève Provost. She made two incredible passes, both on Noémie's goal and mine. I knew the D was closing in, so I wanted to make sure I protected the puck. I'm happy that I could get our team going. Because it was a very close game. Both teams had a lot of great chances. They're a great team, we know they're going to make good plays. We're glad about how we played today, and we think we can play even better tomorrow." On Labonté's performance: "She was great tonight. Very very incredible. That made a difference. Because so many of their shots were good shots, good quality shots, and she found a way to just keep the rebound. And that prevented us from scrambling and chasing them around in our D-zone. She was our best player tonight by far. And we need her to continue like that if we want to win tomorrow and move on."
Finally, a quickie CWHL Awards recap from Wednesday night's gala, as livetweeted by the CWHL team Twitters:
- Angela James Bowl, of course, to Rebecca Johnston (led the league in points).
- Best defenseman (defensewoman?): Tara Watchorn (led the league in points by defense).
- Rookie of the year: Brianna Decker (duh--32 points in 12 games, and yes she is a rookie).
- Best goaltender: Charline Labonté (0.927 save percentage, and makes it look easy).
- League MVP: Rebecca Johnston.
- Coach of the year: Dany Brunet of the Montreal Stars.
The Blades and Furies are back for Game 2 at 11AM today, while the Inferno/Stars game will be at 7:30PM.