PWHL Montreal’s first home game on Jan. 13 at Verdun Auditorium will be a homecoming Marie-Philip Poulin has waited a long time to have.
The Canadian captain has played in front of a home crowd with the national team and on the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) tour.
But it’s been nearly five years since Poulin has gotten to play at home in professional league play, in an environment where she gets to go to battle with the same players every day for a whole season, all in pursuit of the same goal.
The player fans call Captain Clutch, though she’d never call herself that, has always had a knack for living up to the moment.
She’ll finally have another chance to bring a championship to Quebec. With undoubtedly the best player in the world in the lineup, anything is possible this season in Montreal.
Coverage of the first PWHL regular-season game on Jan. 1 at 12:30 p.m. ET (New York at Toronto) will be available on CBC Gem, cbcsports.ca, the CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices, and CBC TV, beginning with a pre-game show at 12 p.m.
The team also boasts one of the best goaltenders in the world in Ann-Renée Desbiens, a power-play quarterback in defender Erin Ambrose, and world-class speed and compete from Kristin O’Neill and Laura Stacey.
The biggest challenge for Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie might be finding the right mixture of skill and chemistry throughout her lineup, with the team built from scratch over the last few months and a lot of players who are new to each other.
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But it’s a challenge a lot of teams will face in the PWHL’s first season, and one Cheverie feels her squad has already made progress with.
“We’ve got great leaders in our organization from staff to players, and I feel like we’re in a really good spot and our group is really happy with the cohesion that we have seen to date,” Cheverie said on Wednesday.
Magician on ice
That leadership begins with Poulin, who brings an unmatched work ethic on and off the ice.
Poulin has no holes in her game, and the list of what she does well is a long one. There’s her shot and her elite vision. There’s her two-way game, powered by her sense of no quit.
Or how about her puck control, which can make her look like a magician on ice, ready to dazzle at any moment.
But it’s her ability to finish a game that stands out most about Poulin’s game for PWHL first overall pick Taylor Heise.
Poulin was paired with rookie Maureen Murphy and Czech forward Tereza Vanišová throughout the pre-season. While it looked like the three of them were still figuring each other out, Poulin felt their chemistry had potential, saying both her linemates are “very skilled players.”
Vanišová is fresh off an Isobel Cup-winning season with the Toronto Six in the now-shuttered Premier Hockey Federation (PHF), one of several members of that championship squad who have landed in Montreal.
In announcing a two-year contract for the seventh-round pick earlier this month, GM Danièle Sauvageau said the team’s leadership liked the vision and skill Vanišová showed in Utica. She was rewarded with a power-play goal in the team’s final pre-season game against Minnesota.
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“Vanišová and Murphy bring some pretty dynamic elements to that line,” Cheverie said during the pre-season. “We’re happy with where they’re progressing and where they’re going.”
The third member of that line, Murphy, is in her first pro season after a collegiate career with a stacked team at Northeastern University, where she was a top-10 finalist last season for the Patty Kazmaier award for the best female player in college hockey.
Murphy’s selection in the third round came as a bit of a surprise, with players like Loren Gabel, Elizabeth Giguère and Hayley Scamurra still on the board.
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But Montreal’s leadership sees Murphy as a key part of the team’s future, signing her to a three-year contract.
After three weeks of training camp, Ambrose picked Murphy as the most underrated player in the PWHL heading into the first season, praising her skill, work ethic, and drive to improve.
“I think she’s going to be somebody that takes this league by storm,” Ambrose said.
Speed, skill expected from Stacey, O’Neill
That trio is joined in Montreal’s top six by Stacey, who seems to have found a new level in her game over the last couple of years. With speed and size, Stacey can turn over pucks on the forecheck and create breaks.
She was consistently one of the best players on the ice last season with Team Adidas in the PWHPA, and finished fourth in scoring (21 points in 20 games), tied with Team Adidas-turned-Montreal teammate, O’Neill. Stacey also thrives in the tough areas of the ice and has often played that kind of role for Team Canada.
Like Stacey, O’Neill is also poised to see a bigger role this season, with the kind of opportunity and resources she hasn’t had since graduating from Cornell University at the beginning of the pandemic.
Selected in the second round of the draft by Montreal, O’Neill also brings speed and scoring, along with some grit.
“She’s so quick and speedy and she gets in hard on the forecheck and she doesn’t give up ever,” Toronto defender Renata Fast said of O’Neill. “She’s a player that I don’t love playing against.”
The team also has Kennedy Marchment available to deploy in the top six, someone who has used her hockey IQ to score everywhere she’s played, from St. Lawrence University to Sweden’s women’s league to the Connecticut Whale, where she finished second in points in the PHF last season.
Dempsey finished just behind Marchment in PHF scoring last year, and knows what it takes to lead a team to a championship, having won the Clarkson Cup in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and three titles in the PHF, all with Boston teams.
Bettez has been wearing a Montreal jersey for more than a decade, and is strong on both sides of the puck.
But the 36-year-old said she also sees her job description as helping young players, including some who are new to the city, feel comfortable.
“If they’re OK off the ice, they’re going to feel comfortable on the ice,” Bettez said.
Montreal features skill on blue line
Sauvageau said Wednesday that Ambrose is “fully recovered” from an injury she sustained during a November Rivalry Series game.
A first-round pick by Montreal, Ambrose is an Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion, and returns to a city where she spent time playing with Les Canadiennes of the CWHL.
Ambrose didn’t play in the pre-season as she recovered from her injury, but Cheverie was happy with what she saw from the rest of her defenders, who got better at moving the puck as the games went on.
That includes Dominika Lásková, another defender who has offensive ability.
Lásková, Lum bring versatility
Lásková, who plays on the Czech national team with Vanišová, can also play forward, and will bring versatility to any defensive pairing she plays on. She’s also got a powerful shot, showing that off on a goal against Boston during pre-season.
Lásková joins Leah Lum, who made the team out of camp, as players who can play both positions. Lum was listed as a forward on the team’s final roster, but played defence in the pre-season, injuries on Montreal’s blue line.
Defender Kati Tabin didn’t dress for the team in the pre-season, but brings more experience and skill to Montreal’s blue line. Both Lum and Tabin won a championship last season with the Toronto Six.
Catherine Daoust and Brigitte Laganière are also top-four options on defence. The two, who both made the roster as training camp invitees, were often paired together last season in the PHF with the Montreal Force.
Desbiens a force in goal
Desbiens will be Montreal’s starter in net, and brings a ton of experience and composure. She led Canada to an Olympic gold medal and two world championships and looked unbeatable at times in the process.
The Patty Kazmaier winner was one of Montreal’s first free agent signings, and will finally get the opportunity to lead a pro team to a championship in her home province.
After backstopping the team to a win over Boston in the pre-season, Cheverie said Desbiens gave the team confidence.
“She plays the puck really well so it’s kind of like a third (defender) for us back there,” she said.
She’s joined by Elaine Chuli, who was fantastic as the Six’s starting goalie last year. With six pro seasons under her belt, she’s a solid second option.
Marlène Boissonnault was one of three free agent goaltenders invited to Montreal’s training camp, and emerged with the final roster spot in net. Cheverie was impressed with Boissonnault’s battle level.
Montreal will open its season on the road in Ottawa on Jan. 2.
Full Montreal roster
#7 Laura Stacey (Kleinburg, Ont.)
#8 Gabrielle David (Drummondville, Que.)
#12 Leah Lum (Richmond, B.C.)
#14 Jillian Dempsey (Winthrop, Mass.)
#15 Maureen Murphy (Buffalo, N.Y.)
#16 Sarah Lefort (Ormstown, Que.)
#21 Tereza Vanišová (Strakonice, Czech Republic)
#22 Kennedy Marchment (Marmora, Ont.)
#24 Ann-Sophie Bettez (Sept-Îles, Que.)
#26 Sarah Bujold (Riverview, N.B.)
#29 Marie-Philip Poulin (Beauceville, Que.)
#42 Claire Dalton (Toronto, Ont.)
#43 Kristin O’Neill (Oakville, Ont.)
#2 Mariah Keopple (Menomonie, Wis.)
#4 Catherine Daoust (Île Bizard, Que.)
#6 Madison Bizal (Elk River, Minn.)
#9 Kati Tabin (Winnipeg, Man.)
#10 Brigitte Laganière (Montreal, Que.)
#23 Erin Ambrose (Keswick, Ont.)
#96 Dominika Lásková (Prague, Czech Republic)
#1 Marlène Boissonnault (Dundee, N.B.)
#20 Elaine Chuli (Brantford, Ont.)
#35 Ann-Renée Desbiens (La Malbaie, Que.)
Mélodie Daoust, F (Valleyfield, Que.)
Catherine Dubois, F (Charlesbourg, Que.)
Alexandra Poznikoff, F (Edmonton, Alta.)