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Hickey on Hockey: Les Canadiennes, Inferno renew fierce title rivalry

Hickey on Hockey: Les Canadiennes, Inferno renew fierce title rivalry
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This is the fiercest rivalry in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the teams will be meeting in the final for third time in four years. Calgary won it in 2016, while Les Canadiennes were victorious a year later.

The top players on both teams are accustomed to playing together — against each other — in international competitions and the two rosters are stocked with Olympic medallists from Canada and the United States.

Les Canadiennes captain Marie-Philip Poulin and Calgary Inferno Brianne Jenner face off during a 3-1 loss to Calgary at Place Bell in Laval on Oct. 14, 2018. Dave Sidaway / Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

“These teams match up well,”  said Les Canadiennes rookie coach Caroline Ouellette, who was on the ice for the last two Clarkson Cup meetings. “Both teams have world-class goaltenders and skilled players who can score. We have to play well defensively and use our speed to turn that into offensive chances. They have a tremendous amount of depth and experience.”

There’s one huge question mark for Les Canadiennes and that’s the health of Marie-Philip Poulin, who is, arguably, the best player in the women’s game. The CWHL’s leading scorer with 50 points in 26 games, Poulin suffered a lower-body injury in the final game of the regular season and Ouellette described her status as day-to-day.

“She has been skating in practice and she’s working hard to get in the lineup,” said Ouellette.

Even without Poulin, Les Canadiennes have a formidable offence. Ann-Sophie Bettez finished second in the scoring race with 48 points and U.S. Olympian Hilary Knight had four goals and four assists in the three-game semifinal series win over Markham. Erin Ambrose, a finalist for defender of the year, led all CWHL blue-liners with 24 points.

Calgary also has top-end snipers in former CWHL most valuable player Rebecca Johnston, Blayre Turnbull, Brianne Jenner and Brianna Decker, the U.S. Olympic star who wowed fans with her skills in a guest appearance at the NHL All-Star Game festivities.

The interest in the goaltending matchup goes beyond the fact Emerance Maschmeyer of Les Canadiennes and Alex Rigsby of the Inferno finished 1-2 in the CWHL. Maschmeyer, who led the league with a 1.45 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage, previously played for the Inferno. She was replaced this season by Rigsby, who led the U.S. to a gold medal at the 21018 Winter Olympics. Rigsby has a 2.04 GAA and a .916 save percentage. The Inferno won four of the six regular-season games against Les Canadiennes, but Maschmeyer shut out Calgary 3-0 in their final regular-season meeting.

The rosters of the rival teams reflect the growing stature of the CWHL and the respective teams.

Les Canadiennes’ Hilary Knight takes puck away from Markham Thunder’s Kristen Richards during Game 2 of CWHL semifinal series at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on March 9, 2019. Peter McCabe / MONTREAL GAZETTE

Ambrose, who played for the Toronto Furies after graduating from Clarkson University, said coming to Montreal was one of the best decisions of her life. In addition to playing for Les Canadiennes, she’s also working as an assistant coach for Concordia University’s women’s team.

U.S. Olympic gold medallist Knight said she came to Montreal because she wanted to play against the best female players. Rigsby, Decker and Kacey Bellamy are the U.S. Olympians on the Calgary roster, which also includes players from Finland and Japan.

Ouellette said the next logical step is a merger with the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League. She said the major stumbling block was a difference in philosophy. The NWHL was established as a for-profit operation, while the CWHL teams are run on a non-profit basis.

The Clarkson Cup has turned into a weekend affair with an awards night on Friday. The game will be televised in Canada and on the NHL Network in the U.S. with an all-female broadcasting crew featuring Olympic gold medallists Cassie Campbell, Jennifer Botterill and Natalie Spooner.

“Unacceptable” peewee decision: While the Clarkson Cup will be celebrating the accomplishments of female hockey players, the folks who run minor hockey in the Mauricie region took a step back.

Les Rafales, an all-girls peewee team that competes in a boys’ league, qualified for the Dodge Cup inter-regional competition. But Hockey Mauricie decided that it would not send the girls on to a competition for which they qualified because, well, they’re not boys.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” said Les Canadiennes’ Ambrose, who was the captain of a boys’ AAA team when she was 12.

Ouellette, who competed with boys from age 9 to 17 — “I’m old and there wasn’t any girls’ hockey in those days” — said the decision sent the wrong message to the girls as well as to the boys.

“Even though the girls are going to the Dodge Cup for girls, they earned the right to play in the boys’ competition,” said Ouellette, who is a longtime advocate for girls’ hockey.

Primeau among Richter finalists: For the second consecutive year, Canadiens prospect Cayden Primeau is among the 10 finalists for the Mike Richter Award, which goes to the best goaltender in U.S. college hockey.

The sophomore assured Boston’s Northeastern University a place in the 16-team NCAA tournament last weekend when he stopped 74 of 76 shots in a pair of 2-1 victories over Maine in the best-of-three Hockey East quarter-finals. He was particularly impressive in the first game in which he made 42 saves, including five in overtime.

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