The thing about sports is that somebody always has to lose. There’s a lot to be said for the value of competition, and putting up a good fight, but at the end of the day only one team skates away with the trophy in their hands.
This weekend, that team was the Toronto Furies, for the first time in league history.
By all rights, the Furies shouldn’t have even been in the final. They finished second-to-last in the regular season, miles behind the league-leading Montreal Stars. But you wouldn’t have known that based off Toronto’s performance in the Clarkson Cup playoffs this past weekend. They overcame the Inferno in a tight 2-3 game on Wednesday, and followed up with a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Boston in their round robin match-up. Despite the loss, Toronto demonstrated what would prove to be the heart of their game throughout the series: absolutely dazzling goalie performance and a defense that just wouldn’t quit pushing.
But most importantly, with every step forward in the round robin, the Furies kept getting better. After the loss to Boston, they approached the bout with heavyweight Montreal with a kind of steadfast determination that held them in the game throughout overtime and the shootout. Toronto tightened up their play after every match, playing tougher defense and keeping offensive pressure even in the face of CWHL superstars.
It’s telling that Toronto’s game-winning goal from Britni Smith just 33 seconds into overtime was a rebound. The Furies didn’t build their series on starpower or fancy breakaways (although, as in any playoff series, both teams had a few of these opportunities). They built their play on dogged hard work, and Smith’s determined slam of the rebound past Brittany Ott showed it.
Ott, like Furies goalie Christina Kessler, gave a remarkable performance. She made 23 saves to Kessler’s 25, and certainly lived up to her earlier performance against the Montreal Stars. The Blades were undefeated heading into the final and had allowed only three goals total. Facing that kind of brick wall goaltending, it’s no surprise that the Furies relied heavily on Kessler to keep them on an even field.
Kessler, who was named MVP of the championship game, made perhaps her biggest save against a stunning breakaway from Hilary Knight late in the third period. It was the dazzling kind of move that makes the Blades the Blades, and Kessler’s stop is certainly what made the Furies the Furies throughout the tournament. Unstoppable force meets immovable object.
Of course, if you want to talk about unstoppable forces, tournament MVP Natalie Spooner certainly earned her spot. The forward assisted on the overtime winner and scored both goal-winning goals during the round robin. Spooner’s willingness to put the puck in the back of the net in whatever way she could typified the Furies offensive strategy throughout the tournament. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why we all thought Toronto was such a long shot. That kind of dogged offensive push in front of goaltending like Kessler’s makes for a hell of a hard competitor.
Then again, that’s what the playoffs are all about: everybody shows their teeth. The question will be whether Toronto can keep theirs sharp through next year’s regular season, when they’ll be, for the first time, the league’s official top dog.
Bring it on, 2015.