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After allowing Montreal to get a point against Toronto with a magnificent performance, Ann-Renée Desbiens was given the night off yesterday which meant that Elaine Chuli was making her second start of the season. The task at hand for the 29-year-old goaltender was a big one as Minnesota was first in the league and had not yet lost in regulation.
5,001 fans turned up for this game on a Wednesday night, a far cry from the 13,000 who were in attendance when Minnesota had beaten Montreal 3-0. The visitors opened the scoring when Laura Stacey shot a one-timer of a Vasinova pass which was deflected on the way to the net to beat Nicole Hensley a little over four minutes into the game. It was a rather opportunistic goal for Montreal as Minnesota was dominating puck possession and already testing Chuli with a myriad of shots. The Waterford, Ontario native stood tall and stopped all the shots received in the first frame, allowing Montreal to go back to the locker room with a 1-0 lead.
If the local favorites saw most of the puck, Montreal was the most robust side on the night delivering a lot of hard checks including three big ones from Laura Stacey and Marie-Philip Poulin on first overall pick Taylor Heise as the night went on. Those looked like “welcome to the pros” moments for the youngsters, who took them on the chin and kept going. After the last collision Heise and Poulin exchanged a smile and a little “you, ok?” in the heat of the action.
Halfway through the game, Michela Cava solved Elaine Chuli and put Minnesota on the board. It was Cava’s first goal of the season and an important one in this duel at the top of the standings. Minnesota kept attacking relentlessly in the middle frame putting 23 shots on Chuli’s net, but the score remained 1-1. Montreal spent four minutes in the penalty box during those 20 minutes which didn’t help matters, but as is often the case for Montreal’s hockey teams, they got stellar goaltending.
The visitors got three more penalties in the final frame including a Tereza Vasinova tripping call which happened 200-feet away from her own net, the kind of penalties coaches loathe. The first line winger ensured that everything was forgotten and forgiven though as when she stepped out of the penalty box, she flew into Minnesota’s zone and took advantage of a rebound of the boards to score the game-winning goal. Chuli had to make 14 saves in this final frame to preserve the win and was understandably named first star of the game with 45 saves on 46 shots.
In her post-game comments, head coach Kori Cheverie said she wasn’t worried about the number of shots allowed by her team as she considered that most shots came from the outside and her team was able to shut Minnesota down. As for Vasinova, she pleaded that the numerous time the team had to play shorthanded partly explained the important number of shots, she even dared to say some of those calls weren’t deserved. Cheverie refused to comment on the officiating though, simply stating they never had those officials before, and it was hard to pass judgment after a single game.
On Vasinova, Cheverie said the goal was a long-time coming for the Czech winger as she’s been playing the game the way the coaching staff wants the team to play. She was also thrilled by the way her team celebrated the win in the locker room, it was a hard fought battle and the coach saw a team in which teammates are proud of one another.
Mission accomplished for Montreal who inflicted a first regulation lost to Minnesota and leaves the hockey states with both the three points and is now first in the standings. Even though Cheverie refused to blame the team’s defense for the numerous shots allowed, she’s got to be concerned by the number of turnovers committed by her team in the defensive zone. Without Montreal’s incredible goaltending in the last two games, it’s quite plausible they would have ended up with zero points rather than the four they collected out of a possible six. Still, the goaltenders are part of the team, and Daniele Sauvageau can be proud of her choice of goalies.
For those wondering, Elaine Chuli, speaking to the media after the game, confirmed it was her last game wearing her Toronto Six helmet since she should receive her new mask any day now. Montreal will be back in action on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 PM at the Place Bell when they’ll host Ottawa which finds itself fourth in the standings after a 3-2 loss to Boston last night. On January 2nd, Montreal beat Ottawa 3-2 in overtime and spoiled Ottawa’s home opener and the visitors will no doubt want to avenge the loss.