It seemed unlikely right up to the final three games, but the Toronto Furies have clinched the fourth playoff spot with a 3-1 win over the Markham Thunder and will face the first-place Calgary Inferno in the semi-finals.
Rink one at the Mastercard Centre was rocking tonight. The crowd was 468 strong, with fans of both teams in attendance and they were ready to be loud. (One fan even brought a cowbell.) Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy dropped the ceremonial puck and also sang the anthem.
Shea Tiley was given the starting assignment in net, and Coach Courtney Kessel sent out her top line of Natalie Spooner, Sarah Nurse and Shannon Stewart to start, with Renata Fast and Megan Quinn on defence.
The game might not have been quite as important to the Thunder, but they came to win, putting Erica Howe in net for her third consecutive start. They also started their top line of Jamie Lee Rattray, Victoria Bach and Laura Stacey with Laura Fortino and Ella Matteucci on the back end.
There was some sort of problem with the installation of the nets, which delayed the start of the game a while, but eventually things got under way.
While there was no scoring in the period there were three penalties. Spooner went off first for a holding call less than two minutes into the game. Carolyne Prévost took her place on the penalty kill.
The second penalty was on Nurse for a retaliatory crosscheck. The ref saw the crosscheck and not the incident that inspired it, so Nurse got the gate about a minute after the Spooner penalty expired.
The Thunder’s Laura McIntosh (up from the 40 player roster in place of Ailish Forfar, who is with Team Canada preparing for Universiade in Siberia) was called for a bodycheck early in the second half.
The Furies and Thunder both got chances this period but the Thunder dominated possession, keeping up a lot more of the sustained pressure, while the Furies got the majority of the rushes. Markham intercepted a lot of Toronto passes. Both Tiley and Howe looked good, although Tiley had more to keep an eye on. The sound of pucks thudding off her pads was both loud and reassuring.
Spooner, Nurse, Prévost and Shiann Darkangelo had the most offensive chances. Carlee Campbell and Mellissa Channell were notable defensively, Channell for a play very late in the period where she went one on one with Victoria Bach and stole the puck to prevent a scoring chance.
Shots on goal were tied at seven apiece.
Apparently the Furies decided they were done messing around because it took Sarah Nurse a total of 19 seconds to score. She came up the outside in a give-and-go with Spooner, the puck was briefly intercepted by a Thunder player before it bounced to Nurse again, who put the puck in the net at an impossible angle. It’s too fast to tell for sure, but a few Markham fans were convinced it banked off a Thunder player and that’s entirely likely. Toronto was up 1-0 and Furies supporters in the rink remembered how to breathe for a second.
This was generally a better period for Toronto. They were better at entering the zone, better at sustaining pressure and better at getting pucks to the net. Seven minutes in there was a shot that even Howe seemed to think was behind her but it had managed to miss the net.
Channell and Campbell got some offensive chances along with their continued great defensive play. Renata Fast had a few opportunities and Brittany Howard was getting involved as well, usually alongside Darkangelo or Prévost. If I have to tell you that Spooner and Nurse were getting a bunch of shot attempts at this point in the season, I can’t help you. On the Thunder, Rattray and Bach both looked worryingly good, with honourable mention to Fortino. Again, both Tiley and Howe had to make some big saves, particularly in close.
With about five and a half minutes left in the period Jenna McParland was called for holding and the Furies got their second power play of the night. Toronto had a couple of chances but they cycled the puck a little too much and lost the zone. It was back at 5 on 5 that they struck again, as Howard sent a heck of a shot past Howe to make it 2-0, with assists from Campbell and Darkangelo.
The Thunder very nearly connected on a chance with two minutes left in the period but they hit the side of the net instead.
Sarah Nurse went down behind the net with Kristen Barbara on top of her. You can’t do that, so Markham had another penalty to kill with 45 seconds left in the period.
Shots were 14 to 5 in favour of the Furies.
The Furies started the third on the advantage and sent out Spooner, Nurse, Prévost, Campbell and Channell against Laura Stacey, Megan Bozek, Kristen Richards and Ella Matteucci. Campbell got off a nice slapshot but most of the kill was lost to Markham being a shorthanded nuisance.
Sarah Nurse continued to get shots on net while Shiann Darkangelo tried her best to get a goal of her own. Renata Fast stepped up on defence. About seven minutes in a Nurse chance kicked off a flurry of shot attempts from Toronto. It was deeply impressive that Howe kept everything out. Tiley continued doing work at the other end of the ice.
Fast and Spooner combined for what would have been a highlight reel play if Spooner had managed to score. Fast sent a fairly high shot towards the net but a little wide. Spooner was standing at the side of the net and batted it down like Fast had intentionally passed to her and tried to beat Howe.
With eight and a half minutes left a Furies player (possibly Fast) was upended in front of Tiley as she was starting to carry the puck out of the zone. Jess Jones went to the box for the completely unsubtle interference.
Back at even strength Tiley had to make a few saves, but then the Furies looked to have something going as they got the cycle working in the Thunder zone. Spooner went down in a heap near the corner and the ref called Bozek for tripping. The ref was closer than I was, but it didn’t look like Bozek had done much from my vantage point halfway down the ice. Spooner got off more or less under her own power although she was bent double for most of the trip to the bench.
40 seconds into the power play Channell sent a shot through traffic right down the middle. Prévost benefited from her position at the net and it was 3-0 Furies with less than four minutes to go. Carlee Campbell got her second point of the night with the secondary assist.
Taylor Woods spoiled Shea Tiley’s shutout with just 1:59 left on the clock. There was some discussion among the officials, possibly regarding whether the net had been on, but the goal stood. Fortino was credited with the assist.
A few seconds later the Thunder pulled Howe and went 6 on 5, penning Toronto in their own zone. The Furies called a timeout about a minute into this to settle things down.
Spooner got a chance at the empty net but missed. And that was pretty much the game. Time for playoffs!
Shots were 12 to 10 in the period and 33 to 22 in the game in favour of the Furies.
3. Erica Howe, Markham Thunder (30 saves)
2. Brittany Howard, Toronto Furies (game winning goal)
1. Shea Tiley, Toronto Furies (21 saves)
Hey everybody... We have some exciting news for you all— Toronto Furies (@TorontoCWHL) February 27, 2019
With tonight’s 3-1 victory over Markham we have officially clinched the last and final spot in the 2018/2019 Clarkson Cup Playoffs
We will see you soon @InfernoCWHL pic.twitter.com/GSiTkyGluJ
The Furies missed the Clarkson Cup playoffs last year with a sixth place finish. The year before, they took the semi-finals to a third game before losing out to Calgary.
This season, they have two wins out of six games against the Inferno, one win each for goalies Elaine Chuli and Shea Tiley. However, Toronto has never faced Calgary starter Alex Rigsby. Still, as this season has proven, never say die on the Furies!
The best of three series is scheduled to take place in Calgary on the weekend of March 8th. Games will go Friday March 8 at 10 pm EST, Saturday March 9 at 8:45 pm EST, and if game three is necessary, it will be Sunday March 10 at 2 pm EST.