Although the CWHL’s Toronto Furies lost their third and fourth tilts of the season to Les Canadiennes de Montreal, dropping the team from its 2-0 undefeated start to 0.500, the Toronto team that took the ice this season showed a more complete, balanced roster and play than last season.
That is perhaps more cheering news to its followers than a lucky win or two against the 2015-16 regular-season champions. What Toronto showed in that match up is that it is moving up in the world, but that world is small and very, very strong.
The Furies have tough competition to distinguish itself from in the CWHL this upcoming season. The Boston Blades, for one, have revamped their roster entirely in an attempt to make a play for a spot in the postseason, which would be an enormous step up for the lone U.S.-based team. Brampton’s play in the postseason showed its players and coach had regular-season champions, Les Canadiennes de Montreal, all but figured out. On top of that, the Thunder’s draft this August was perhaps the deepest and most intriguing of all five teams, adding spice to its offense.
Last, but certainly not least, both Montreal and the Calgary Inferno are both back and stronger than ever with a few key additions up front (Montreal) or in net (Calgary). Making it to the postseason will prove difficult but pushing through to the Clarkson Cup Final will be even harder.
Toronto, which laid the groundwork for a rebuild last season, strengthened its defense throughout the 2016 CWHL Draft. They added what could be a top pairing in Canadian national team defender Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast.
With scoring dynamo Natalie Spooner on the forward lines and some new tricks when it comes to zone exits, Toronto was able to shut down Montreal for much of the first two periods Saturday night. The Furies might have taken its foot off the gas in the third after a vicious back-and-forth game, ending on a 2-1 defeat, but Sunday proved too much for them and the team fell to Les Canadiennes, 4-1.
What Furies fans saw Saturday night – and Sunday, if they traveled to Montreal’s home rink at Etienne-Desmarteau Arena – was a team with a new defensive look and some terrific goaltending by first-string netminder, Christina Kessler. Kessler played both games and proved and even more formidable opponent in the crease.
Contrary to last season, where she was shakiest during the opening minutes of the first period, Kessler seems to have tightened up her game at the start, allowing no goals in the first period of play Saturday and only one during the first on Sunday. This is no doubt due in part to improved defense in front of her, allowing fewer shots on net by Montreal overall, and particularly in the first two periods, but Kessler deserves a lot of credit for her attention to detail and steady mindset on the ice.
In front of Kessler, Toronto’s defense proved fast and effective Saturday, interrupting passes and tying up Montreal’s first two lines, keeping quiet the sticks of scoring threats Sarah Lefort, Caroline Ouellette, Katia Clement-Heydra. Unfortunately for Toronto, Marie-Philip Poulin, awarded the Angela James Bowl of the 2015-16 season for scoring the highest number of goals in the league, managed to bat home one puck in the second and wrist a second one in during the third period when she caught Toronto’s defense pressing too deep in the offensive zone.
Those two goals against Saturday highlighted what Toronto’s defense can do when it’s on. Both were goals of opportunity, which the Furies did not award much of to Montreal, making the competition a skill showcase.
The same goals, however, showed that although Toronto has tightened up its game, it still can improve when it comes to communication.
Poulin’s bat-in around the net in the second could have been prevented had the offense and defense communicated effectively with each other in regards to who each were covering; Poulin ended up with far too much room to herself right between the dots, prime Poulin scoring-space.
Her second goal on Saturday was another moment when the defense and offense were of two minds — the defense found itself pressing up to help its forwards and the offense was milling around the left circle, unable to get a solid grip on the puck.
In two quick passes Poulin was already past center ice with the puck on her stick, well on her way to an unprotected Kessler. Certainly part of that is Poulin’s uncanny ability to spot and take advantage of a split-second weakness but the Furies cannot afford to give Poulin so much room, with or without the puck.
The season has only just started for Toronto, four games into a 24-game stretch. Those new to the team are still learning the system, still figuring out chemistry. While it does need to figure out how to better communicate on the ice, it’s not unusual for teams to go through this type of issue early in the season.
As Toronto continues to develop and fine tune its defensive systems and communication, the Furies will prove a fierce competitor for a slot in the Clarkson Cup Final.