Despite being the winningest team in the history of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the postseason has not always been kind to Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Although the club was the first to capture three Clarkson Cup titles (2009, 2011, 2012), there have also been its share of postseason heartbreak.
Entering the 2013 Clarkson Cup finals, the franchise (known then as the Montreal Stars) historically aimed to become the first to win three straight titles. Instead, Kelley Steadman led the offensive attack for an ambitious Boston Blades squad, capturing their first-ever title. The two clubs would meet again in the 2015 finals, with overtime needed to decide the winner. Boston’s Janine Weber would become the first European to net a Cup-clinching goal, giving Boston its second title in three seasons.
Finishing the 2015-16 CWHL season with the league’s best regular season record, Les Canadiennes were the overwhelming favorites to capture the coveted Clarkson, looking to redeem itself for the prior defeats suffered against Boston.
Competing against the upstart Calgary Inferno, who were making their first appearance in the Clarkson Cup finals; it was Les Canadiennes who were overwhelmed, suffering an 8-3 loss, undoubtedly, the most embarrassing final in franchise history. In the aftermath of the third finals loss in four seasons, it was surprising that there were no changes at the head coach or general manager positions.
The loyalty shown towards the players and administration was justified after capturing the 2017 Clarkson Cup championship, becoming the first franchise in CWHL history to hoist the coveted Cup four times. Pride was definitely a key factor, as Les Canadiennes did not want to become the first team to lose three straight Clarkson Cup finals.
Facing off against the Calgary Inferno once again, it marked the first time in the history of the Clarkson Cup finals that the same two teams played each other in successive years. The scenario was the polar opposite of 2016, as Les Canadiennes were thrust into the role of underdog, while the Calgary Inferno, who finished first overall in 2017, definitely had ambitions of launching a dynasty.
Such ambitions were not meant to be on this day. Instead, Charline Labonte provided the greatest performance of her career, providing shutout play in the first two periods of the game, nullifying the high scoring Calgary offense. Second year forward Katia Clement-Heydra would score in the first period for Les Canadiennes, weaving her way through heavy traffic to bury a backhand shot past rookie sensation Emerance Maschmeyer for the only goal of said period.
Despite Calgary outshooting the opposition in the second stanza, Les Canadiennes were playing to protect their lead, refusing to take any risks. It was a lead that would expand to two goals as Marie-Philip Poulin, the league MVP and recipient of the Jayna Hefford Trophy (as voted by the players) managed to sneak the puck past the five-hole. With Maschmeyer partly stopping the puck, it wobbled into the back of the net, as she turned around and tried valiantly to swing her glove, hoping to toss it out before it slid past the goal line.
The latter half of the third period would see the Inferno finally solve Labonte, as Inferno All-Star Jillian Saulnier released a laser beam of a wrist shot, spoiling her efforts for the first shutout in Cup history. Looking to turn the tide in their favor, Saulnier’s goal would be the only offense that the Inferno could muster.
Opting for an extra attacker in the game’s final minutes by playing with an open net, the Inferno employed what was hoped to be a strategic risk. Instead, Poulin fought off a swarm of Inferno blueliners, scoring almost from centre ice, as the empty netter restored the two-goal lead for Les Canadiennes in an eventual 3-1 final.
Although Poulin finished the postseason as its leading scorer, the journey to postseason glory was achieved through the Amazonian efforts of Labonte, who allowed only three goals in three postseason games. Three would emerge as a theme for Labonte during Clarkson Cup weekend.
Not only did she become the first goaltender to start in three consecutive finals, she would also win the CWHL Goaltender of the Year Award two days earlier, marking the third straight time that honor was bestowed upon her.
Labonte would gain the opportunity to add some more hardware to her collection. Fittingly, she was not only recognized as the First Star of the Game, but the Most Valuable Player in the postseason. Complementing her remarkable victory was the fact that she became the 18th person to gain entry into the unofficial Triple Gold Club for Women, which consists of a player having won an IIHF World Championship, a gold medal in the Winter Games, and the coveted Clarkson Cup.