Christina Kessler was a stalwart in net, helping Toronto to its first-ever Clarkson Cup. (Meg Linehan/MegLinehan.com)
By Sarah Connors
Congratulations, Toronto - you’ve got yourselves a Cup champion at long last.
A Clarkson Cup, that is.
The Toronto Furies defeated the Boston Blades for the Canadian Womens’ Hockey League championship in dramatic fashion Saturday afternoon at Centennial Arena in Markham, Ontario. Britni Smith scored the only goal of the game :33 into overtime, after a 60-minute goaltending clinic by the Furies’ Christina Kessler and the Blades’ Brittany Ott. Kessler made 25 saves, while Ott made 23.
It was the second time Boston and Toronto met in the four-day tournament, with the first game going in Boston’s favor by a score of 2-1; it would end up being Toronto’s only loss of the tournament. The Blades came into the final having outscored their opponents 9-3 through three games without a loss. Both squads defeated the Calgary Inferno and the Montreal Stars, the other participants in the four-game round-robin playoff (the league's only other team, the Brampton Thunder, didn't qualify).
Between Ott’s work in net and the scoring prowess of Kelli Stack, Kate Buesser and Hilary Knight - who had four goals in the Blades’ win over the Calgary Inferno on Friday - the defending champs were the favorite coming into Saturday’s finale.
From the initial puck drop through the final buzzer, they deep Boston offense couldn’t solve Kessler, who was name tournament MVP after the win.
Toronto held a minor edge in shots through one period, and neither team was able to capitalize on their single power play opportunities. Natalie Spooner, the tournament's fourth-leading scorer, put a number of quality shots on Ott, but Ott held steady. Play continued much the same way through the second period, with both teams focusing on pushing the play to the outside, and neither team getting any good quality chances until late in the period.
Toronto managed to draw a number of penalties late in the game, and a shorthanded bid by Hilary Knight in the third ended up being the Blades’ best opportunity. Knight, a two-time Olympian for team Team USA, managed to break up a Furies pass at the blueline only to have her initial shot and her rebound attempt denied by Kessler.
“Hilary Knight has one of the toughest breakaway moves because she has so many options,” said Sami Jo Small, Kessler's Toronto teammate and the CWHL’s winningest goaltender. “It showed that Kessler was really on her game. It was an incredible save at an opportune moment.”
From there, it was all Toronto in overtime - a power play that carried over from the third period led to Smith’s sudden-death goal just :33 in.
The entire tournament was streamed online, and generated a lot of buzz, especially in the wake of an incredible women’s tournament in Sochi. According to Small, the league has a lot of work to do in terms of growth and public attention, but for at least one day, the work can wait.