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Dream season

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Heading into the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup playoffs as regular season champs, Les Canadiennes are ready to cap off their dream season in style.

From the moment the team suffered a heart-breaking overtime defeat in last year’s Clarkson Cup Final, the players of the then-Montreal Stars began counting down the days to the start of the 2015-16 campaign.

In the months that followed, the good news hasn’t stopped rolling in for the CWHL’s winningest team. An NHL partnership with the Canadiens was announced, the best female hockey player in the world elected to come back home to Quebec to continue her professional career, and the organization kicked off the season by unveiling a brand new name and logo. Armed with the perfect mix of veteran leadership and young, explosive talent, Les Canadiennes won 21 of 24 games in 2015-16 en route to capturing the regular season title.

Good fortune has surrounded Montreal’s other bleu-blanc-rouge team this year, but the accomplishments Les Canadiennes have accumulated over the last few months have little to do with luck.

"Our focus every time we hit the ice was on making sure we were improving every game. Sure, we had a great season, but we still lost a few games along the way. After those losses, we realized we needed to prepare even harder for the next game and we took a step back to analyze what went wrong. As a result, after each of our three losses, we immediately bounced back with a win,” recounted Marie-Philip Poulin, who won the 2016 Angela James Bowl as the CWHL’s regular season scoring leader thanks to a 46-point campaign, two more than fellow Canadiennes sniper, Ann-Sophie Bettez.

Marie-Philip Poulin (CHC - François Lacasse)

"I already knew some of the girls here in Montreal and I played in the league a few years ago before heading off to college," continued Poulin, who spent four years plying her trade with Boston University in the NCAA before entering the 2015 CWHL draft last summer. "I was very happy to come back home to Montreal. The caliber of play is better than ever and I have the chance to play in front of my family and friends. There was an adjustment period at the beginning, for sure, but it’s been an incredible season with this group.”

While Poulin was a force to be reckoned with in her first full CWHL season, she was far from the only standout on the preeminent Canadiennes roster.

For the second time in CWHL history, the league’s top four leading scorers were from Montreal. Counting elite scorers like Poulin (46 points), Bettez (44), Kim Deschenes (33), and Caroline Ouellette (32), it’s no surprise Les Canadiennes led the league with 114 goals for, 17 more than the Calgary Inferno in that category.

Though Les Canadiennes have been lighting the lamp with ease this season, the team’s defensive stars also deserve their share of the credit for the team’s exemplary season, having allowed just 36 goals in 24 games – yet another CWHL benchmark in 2015-16.

Kim Deschenes (Getty Images)

"When you have girls like Ann-Sophie, Caro, Poulin – I could name the whole team because everybody contributes – in front of you, it makes a goalie’s job much easier, especially when you jump out to a quick four-goal lead. You can easily fall into a comfort zone, but that’s something I worked to avoid. I have a great group in front of me, but I still need to do my job.” explained Charline Labonte, who led all CWHL netminders in several categories, including wins (17), shutouts (5), goals-against average (1.52) and save percentage (.925). "Yes my stats were good, but just because you earned a shutout on the stat sheet doesn’t necessarily mean you played a great game. Sometimes, I’m more satisfied with how I played in games where I let in three goals. What’s most important to me is the way I play and how I prepare mentally and physically before each game.”

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In addition to recording a year-over-year average attendance spike of over 80 percent at home games at Etienne Desmarteau Arena this season, Les Canadiennes also grew the team’s fan base off the island by playing a handful of games in front of overflowing crowds at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard and the Boisbriand Arena, before a bleu-blanc-rouge wave engulfed the Air Canada Centre in Toronto in January, with a league-high nine players called on to participate in the 2016 CWHL All-Star Game.

Charline Labonté (CHC - François Lacasse)

Les Canadiennes also had a chance to make history this season when they suited up for the inaugural NHL Outdoor Women’s Classic as part of the NHL’s Winter Classic festivities at Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Eve. For the players, participating in the open-air event in Foxborough is something they won’t soon forget.

"It was amazing experience for us as a team, and it felt almost magical to receive such a first-class treatment from the NHL. We hope it becomes an annual event. It was an incredible feeling to be able to play on the same ice as the NHL players in front of thousands of fans,” described forward Kim Deschenes, who scored the first goal in the first-ever Outdoor Women’s Classic on Dec. 31. "The fact that I scored our only goal of the game was the icing on the cake.”

The 2016 Clarkson Cup Final will take place at the Canadian Tire Centre on March 13, but if Les Canadiennes want to make the trek to the nation’s capital, they’ll have to get through the Toronto Furies first.

"It'll be a battle this weekend because both teams want to achieve the exact same goal. We will have to take it one game at a time. We don't know what to expect yet, but we know we have to be at our best," stressed Deschenes of the upcoming best-of-three semi-final series that kicks off at Etienne Desmarteau Arena on Friday night. “Even if we get up a game in the series, we have to play like there’s no tomorrow.”

For more details about Les Canadiennes’ upcoming playoff series or to purchase tickets, visit lescanadiennes.com/tickets and follow their playoff run in real-time on Twitter: @LesCanadiennes.

Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Jared Ostroff.

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