The Montreal Stars swept the defending Clarkson Cup champion Toronto Furies this past weekend to extend their winning streak to a season-high six games and are playing their best hockey of the season right as the Clarkson Cup playoffs are around the corner.
“We’re building momentum at the right time,” said Stars forward Noemie Marin. “We’re peaking at the right time.”
They have two games remaining in their regular season, both home games against the first place Boston Blades this coming weekend. The Stars are two points behind and a sweep would see them clinch first place for the second season in a row.
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On November 29, the Stars lost 4-3 in a shootout to Toronto and their record was at a very average 4-4-1, and two of those wins were due to two forfeited games by Boston due to a reported contract issue. It looked like they would be in a fight for their playoff lives.
It was a stark contrast to last season when teams were without their National team members as they were getting ready for the Sochi Olympics. Montreal had only lost two regulation games in the entire regular season.
But then something happened. The day after their shootout loss, they beat the Furies 4-0. It was the start of a 10-3-0 run that is still going thanks to their winning streak against Calgary, Brampton and Toronto.
“The early part of the season we went through a lot of growing pains,” said Stars veteran Julie Chu. “We had to re-define ourselves as a team and figure out our strengths and weaknesses and how to play to our strengths and how to, over a season, be able to improve those areas that we want to.”
“I think we’ve worked really hard and our coaching staff has done a great job with us.”
“We’ve found our identity,” said forward Ann-Sophie Bettez.
Part of that identity has been defined roles and getting strong play from all four lines. Bettez, Caroline Ouellette and Emmanuelle Blais provide a great top line, but it is Montreal’s second line of Marin, rookie Kim Deschenes and Marieve Provost that have stepped it up recently.
Over the six game winning streak, Marin has eight goals (including her 100th career CWHL goal) and three assists and that is despite being shut out in Montreal’s 5-1 win over Toronto on Sunday afternoon. In her previous 10 games, she had three goals and three assists. The Stars outscored Toronto 11-2 in the two games.
“We’ve been preparing the same way, doing the same things but were just not able to put it in and now we’re working just as hard but it’s starting to pay off,” said Marin.
“We want to contribute offensively, but we have to take care of our defensive zone first. Every shift we’re trying to contribute whether offensively or defensively.”
Another key factor in Montreal’s success lately has been the power play. They have hit on their power plays at a 28 per cent (7/25) rate over their last six games up from 20 per cent from their first 16 games (13/65).
“We always talk about special teams whether it’s power play or the penalty kill as being critical moments,” said Chu. “On the power play you want to take advantage and try to get an opportunity to score.”
When teams are so close as they are in the CWHL, especially when the playoffs come and the teams play three-game series, you need to take advantage of any chance you get.
“Whenever the other team gets a penalty, we need to make sure that we’re able to capitalize,” said Bettez. “We had a rough start at the beginning of the year and now we’re figuring it out.”
The Stars have yet to beat Boston on the ice this season, losing 2-0 in their season opener and 4-2 in Boston after having a 2-1 third period lead. They know they are in tough to keep their streak going and get top spot in the league.
“Next weekend against Boston is going to be big,” Marin said. “Every shift will be important.”
“All the things seem to be clicking at the right time,” Chu said. “But at the end of the season, anything can happen and we have to be prepared to play every game.”
The two games are Saturday at 6:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. at the Etienne Desmarteau arena in Rosemont.