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'She wanted to play, but the doctors agreed that it was not possible'
Marie-Philip Poulin has two Olympic gold medals and scored the game-winning goal for each of them. She was the leading scorer in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League this season and was named the league’s MVP on Friday night.
And on Sunday, in the biggest game of the professional season, she manned the gate on the bench for the Clarkson Cup final.
Les Canadiennes de Montreal overcame a slow start to make a game of it against the Calgary Inferno, but the absence of the league’s best player was too much of a challenge in the 5-2 win for the team from out west. The Inferno’s deadly top line managed four goals on the afternoon — two from Zoe Hickell, one from Brianna Decker and an empty-netter from Rebecca Johnston. It was Calgary’s second Clarkson Cup title.
Decker, who usually matches up against Poulin in both the CWHL and when she plays against Canada for Team USA, said she was keenly aware that Poulin was missing.
“For me, yeah,” Decker said. “It was no secret that she wasn’t on the ice.”
She was, for a moment. Poulin was out for pre-game warmups at the Coca-Cola Coliseum, and she took part in the ceremonial face-off. But when the puck dropped for real in front of a crowd of close to 5,000, Poulin was not at the face-off dot. An unspecified lower-body injury, suffered in the final weekend of the CWHL’s regular season a month ago, kept her on the bench.
“She did everything she could,” said Montreal coach Caroline Ouellette, saying that Poulin worked on rehabbing every day since the injury to try to get healthy. “In the end, it was really too soon. We couldn’t compromise her career for that one moment,” Ouellette said. “She wanted to play, but the doctors agreed that it was not possible.”
Poulin began the game in the middle of the bench, and would go out on the ice during television timeouts to offer coaching and encouragement to her teammates. It made for an intriguing side plot: was she being saved for a power play? Then the first Montreal man-advantage came and went, and she was still on the bench. When Les Canadiennes eventually had a 5-on-3 situation in the second period and Poulin was still not over the boards, it was clear she wasn’t going to be used at all. By the end, she was off to the end of the bench, opening the door for her teammates.
“She gave us her best,” Ouellette said, saying her teammates wanted her to be part of the game even if she couldn’t play. “She gave us all she could,” the coach said.
But the Inferno were too strong. Their top line was flying off the start, with Hickell redirecting a point shot past Emerance Maschmeyer to open the scoring early in the first period. Halli Krzyzaniak gave Calgary a 2-0 lead at the first intermission, but Montreal’s Ann-Sophie Bettez, who was second in league scoring this season behind Poulin, her usual linemate, snuck a backhander past Inferno goalie Alex Rigsby to make it close.
Calgary’s Brianna Decker, one of a handful of American stars who moved to Canada to join the Inferno this season, made it a two-goal game again with a rocket of a snap shot from the right circle in the second period.
Oullette said that her team was able to regain momentum a couple of times in the game, but she was at a loss to explain the cold start.
“That was my question for them,” she said. “Why were we not on our toes, why were we not confident? We felt prepared for this moment, but we didn’t attack it. We gave them too much respect, and in the end it made the difference.”
They still managed to make it close, though. With two Inferno players in the penalty box about midway through the second period, Montreal’s Hilary Knight received a pass while standing near the crease to the right of Rigsby. Without looking, she slid the puck between her legs, with her back still to the goaltender, and it went across the crease to Bettez, who popped it in the net. It was a dazzling goal, and proof that in Knight and Bettez, Montreal still had some impressive firepower. A goal that would have tied the game at 3-3 early in the third period was disallowed for goaltender interference — Knight appeared to have been knocked into the crease, but Montreal’s appeals didn’t get anywhere — and Hickell’s second of the night restored the two-goal advantage in the third. Johnston finished the scoring with the goalie pulled, and then it was just a matter of waiting until the clock ticked down and the Inferno could dump their equipment all over the ice.
Decker, who was named the game’s MVP, gave credit to her linemates Johnston and Hickell, and said that with all the big-game experience they have on their team — nine recent Winter Olympians — they were able to weather Montreal’s comeback attempts.
Those players with Olympic experience now have a short break — all of one day — before training camps begin for the women’s world championships, which begin April 4 in Finland.
Poulin could be back for that competition.
“I want her back,” said Johnston. Fair enough. They usually play on the same line.
By Scott Stinson
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019