MONTREAL - One year after falling to the Calgary Inferno in the Clarkson Cup Final, Les Canadiennes de Montreal will have another chance to finish their season off in style.
On March 13, 2016, at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, the two top teams in the Canadian Women's Hockey League at the time - Les Canadiennes and the Inferno - battled it out in the Clarkson Cup Final. While many people expected a tight game, the Alberta-based franchise skated to an easy 8-3 victory instead.
Nearly 365 days later, the nation's capital will once again play host to the deciding contest between the two clubs on Sunday. After securing their spot in the championship game last Saturday, Les Canadiennes learned the following day that they'd be going up against the Inferno again. While the identity of their opponent really didn't matter all that much to them, the players admit they were hoping for the opportunity to put last season's heartbreaking defeat in the rearview mirror.
"Going up against Toronto or Calgary, it would have been a good game. The two teams played well in the playoffs, but at the same time there's still that sense of vengeance. We all played our worst game of the season that day. I don't think anyone hides that," said three-time Olympic gold medallist and veteran Canadiennes netminder Charline Labonte, who finished the 2016-17 season with an 11-4-0 record, leading the CWHL in wins.
Video: Marie-Philip Poulin comes up clutch
"Everyone took responsibility for it and I think we put that performance aside. Right now, we're only thinking about this year," she added. "Things are going well and we know what we have to do. I feel like things will be different this weekend."
The road to the final for Les Canadiennes was a bit tougher compared to last season. In addition to seeing Calgary claim the regular-season title, Montreal saw its loss total climb somewhat over the last few months. But those struggles experienced by head coach Dany Brunet's squad only helped his players with their preparation. Better competition from other teams across the League ensured that they weren't looking too far ahead, focusing instead on taking things one game at a time.
"You learn as much from your wins as you do from your losses. I think that the highs and lows that we experienced will help us [on Sunday]. Every team improved and the League is on the rise. When you start a game, you don't know what the final result will be. We used to arrive somewhere and we were more confident that we'd win. What's important is that we play the same way we played all season and dictate the rhythm of the game, regardless of who we're playing," stressed Ann-Sophie Bettez, who was crowned the CWHL's leading goal scorer with 18 on the year.
If Sunday's tilt plays out the same way that their previous meetings did during the regular season, fans in attendance at the Canadian Tire Centre are in for quite a show. Les Canadiennes and the Inferno won three games apiece, and four of the six contests were decided by a margin of two goals or less.
"I love playing against Calgary because they're always good games. They're quick and there's a lot of offense. Our teams are almost identical. We both have excellent goaltenders, a lot of experience on defense, and many different players who can contribute up front," said Caroline Ouellette, who this season became the first player in CWHL history to reach the 300-point plateau. "It will be a good game. I think we were a bit nervous last year. Now, we'll have to impose ourselves and play the way that allowed us to have success during the year."
Ouellette and her teammates will be going in search of their first Clarkson Cup title since 2012 and their fourth in franchise history. Over the last four years, Les Canadiennes have come up short in the final three times. Even if the CWHL boasts only five teams, winning a championship is far from automatic. That's why when the game gets started late Sunday afternoon, every single one of the players involved will be going all out in the hopes of coming out on the right side of the scoresheet.
"Speaking from personal experience, I've been in the League for five years and I've never hoisted the Clarkson Cup," concluded Bettez. "Both teams really want to win more than anything."