Friday, 11 March 2016

The Best Of The Best

With the Clarkson Cup weekend upon us, there's really only one more opportunity for two teams to put forth their best efforts. However, the individuals who make the CWHL special were out in spades at the CWHL Awards Gala that went on this evening. Players such as Marie-Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner, Jill Saulnier, Erica Howe, and Genevieve Lacasse were at the event representing their teams and hoping they'd take home one of the CWHL Awards for which they had been nominated, but each team had a large contingent on-hand for the evening's processions that emceed by Sportsnet's John Bartlett and TSN's Tessa Bonhomme. From early reports, it sounds like it was a fantastic evening!

Make no mistake that while this was an awards dinner, the dinner part took a backseat to the trophies being handed out on this evening. Commissioner Brenda Andress greeted the crowd of excited players and guests, and it was on to finding out which players were the best at their positions this year. Would there be surprises? We'd find out shortly.

We'll knock off the awards where there were no nominees. The Chairman's Trophy, awarded to the league's best team, went to the Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Montreal went 20-3-1-0 this season in their 24 games for a league-best 42 points, eight points better than second-place Calgary. Montreal was dominant through the entire season and featured the top-four scorers in the league. 114 goals-for versus 36 goals-against says that most of their wins were of the lopsided variety, playing in just one one-goal game that ended in regulation time. Les Canadiennes were the best team in the regular season in the CWHL without question.

The Angela James Bowl, awarded to the top regular-season scorer, went to Montreal's Marie-Philip Poulin. The dynamic forward averaged more than two points per game, scoring 23 goals and 23 assists in 22 games. She and her linemates - Caroline Ouellette and Ann-Sophie Bettez - piled up 57 goals and 65 assists this season, but it was Poulin who was the motor and finisher on the line. She has incredible speed, hands, and vision, and she should be the face of women's hockey for the foreseeable future. Marie-Philip Poulin is among the best in all of hockey.

The Humanitarian of the Year Award went to Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux of les Canadiennes de Montreal. Lisa-Marie was a co-founder of the CWHL and she is a former captain of the Montreal Stars. She's the strength and conditioning coach for the Concordia Stingers and coaches the Canadiennes as well. She was the 2014 recipient of the Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Award which is recognized for strong community involvement and a dedication to the game of hockey, and now the CWHL has recognized her for her efforts. She is constantly striving to further women's hockey in Canada, and her efforts in the CIS, former NWHL, and now in the CWHL have been recognized. Congratulations to one of hockey's most passionate people, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux!

The Coach of the Year Award normally goes to the coach whose team saw the greatest improvement or set new records or achievements. This year's award followed that trend as Brampton Thunder head coach Tyler Fines earned this award in helping Brampton go from last-place last season to competing for first-place all season before settling in as the third-place team. Fines led the Thunder to a 19-point turnaround this season, adding ten wins to their total while coaching a fairly young squad. Under his watch, the Thunder scored 45 more goals and allowed 31 fewer goals than one year before. The Thunder are definitely trending upwards in their play at both ends of the ice, and coach Fines is a large reason why.

NOMINEES: Julie Chu (MON), Lauriane Rougeau (MON), Laura Fortino (BRA)

All three women had outstanding seasons. Fortino was the leading scorer for all defencemen with eight goals and 20 assists. Chu and Rougeau played on the Canadiennes who had a monster season, and Rougeau was third in scoring for blueliners. When it came to the envelope, however, it was Laura Fortino of the Brampton Thunder who was named Defenceman of the Year.

Her offensive stats speak for themselves, but Fortino was Brampton's go-to defenceman for the entire season regardless of the situation. She played on the power-play, she killed penalties, she was often assigned to cover the opposition's best player, and she still led the league in points for rearguards. Fortino earned this award with her great play all season.

WINNER: Laura Fortino - Brampton Thunder

NOMINEES: Genevieve Lacasse (BOS), Charline Labonte (MON), Erica Howe (BRA)

Lacasse's 1-22-0 record and 4.86 GAA were in no way indicative of the importance of her 1023 saves or .904 save percentage this season. Labonte led the league with a 17-2-0 record, 1.52 GAA, .925 save percentage, and five shutouts. Howe backstopped a Brampton Thunder team that challenged for first-place all season on the strength of her 2.68 GAA and .915 save percentage. It would be Labonte, however, who was named as the best netminder.

While most fans considered Lacasse's play to put her up for the award, I'm not sure Boston would have done any worse without her. In Labonte's case, she led the league in the four most important goaltending categories and there's strong evidence to suggest that had Labonte not been in the blue paint for Montreal, les Canadiennes may not have had the season they did. While Lacasse made the most stops in CWHL history, Labonte's numbers put her at the head of the class.

WINNER: Charline Labonte - Canadiennes de Montreal

NOMINEES: Katia Clement-Heydra (MON), Rebecca Vint (BRA), Elana Lovell (CAL)

Rebecca Vint and Elana Lovell tied for the lead in points scored by a rookie with 26, but Vint has 19 goals whereas Lovell had 14 goals. Katia Clement-Heydra played on the second line for the best team in the league and still finished with 20 points on the season. Upon opening the envelope, team success paved the way for Elana Lovell as she was named the winner.

This award could have gone to either Vint or Lovell, but Lovell showed a better overall game. The Calgary forward had a better plus/minus and took less penalties than Vint which saw her on the ice more. While she wasn't on the top line for the Inferno, Lovell had a fantastic season on the second line for the Alberta team. Vint saw more time on the top line in Brampton which gave her more opportunities, but it was Lovell who made her opportunities count in keeping pace with Vint and helping Calgary finish second-overall in the CWHL. Because of this, Lovell is the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year.

WINNER: Elana Lovell - Calgary Inferno

NOMINEES: Natalie Spooner (TOR), Marie-Philip Poulin (MON), Laura Fortino (BRA)

Natalie Spooner is one of the faces of the CWHL and Toronto's bets player on any given night. Marie-Philip Poulin was the league's leading scorer on the league's best team. Laura Fortino played on the most improved team and led the league in scoring for defencemen. Needless to say, each woman had a claim to the MVP award. However, the envelope revealed that Marie-Philip Poulin was the league's most valuable player.

It's hard not to be impressed by Poulin's accolades this year. She led the league in goals, points, power-play points, and shorthanded points. She led her team to the top spot in the CWHL, and they'll play for the Clarkson Cup on Sunday. Her line was the most productive in the league by a large margin, and her team rarely found itself trailing at any point all season. Even when they were trailing, the Poulin line usually corrected that problem almost immediately. She might be the best women's player on the planet right now, and she certainly was at the top of her game all season long. Ladies and gentlemen, your CWHL MVP for 2015-16 is Marie-Philip Poulin!

WINNER: Marie-Philip Poulin - Canadiennes de Montreal

Now that the regular season's outstanding players have been recognized, the best team award in the CWHL will be handed out on Sunday. The Clarkson Cup takes place at Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata, Ontario, and you should be there if you're within driving distance. There's a whole pile of community stuff happening Saturday in and around the Ottawa region, and you'll get a chance to meet some of the players listed above! This is the best women's hockey you'll see on the planet for the next few months, so get out and see the Clarkson Cup Final live! You won't be disappointed!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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