NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – When you watch Meghan Agosta play, it’s almost as though you’re looking at a female version of Joe Sakic – sublimely skilled, great skater, terrific shot, big-time difference maker. It’s a comparison her coach shares, with one caveat.
“I’ve kind of stopped comparing her to anyone,” said Philippe Trahan, Agosta’s coach with the Montreal Stars of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. “She’s one of a kind.”
Agosta has certainly distinguished herself in the world of women’s hockey. When we last saw Agosta, she was leading Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and picking up honors as the most valuable player in the tournament. After spending last season finishing her university career at Mercyhurst College – where all she did was become the all-time leading scorer in U.S. college history – the 25-year-old burst into the CWHL this season as a rookie with the Stars. Not only did she break the league’s single-season scoring record with 41 goals and 80 points in just 27 games, but she also picked up most valuable player honors.
The process of Agosta taking over the mantle as the most dominant women’s player in the world that began at the Olympics is now almost complete. If she’s not the best player out there, she’s on a very, very short list at the moment. And with her best hockey years still ahead of her, it’s only a matter of time before she becomes the top player in the women’s game.
“On the international level, I believe that if she stays for a few more Olympics she will do as well or better than (Jayna) Hefford or (Hayley) Wickenheiser have done,” Trahan said. “I think her style compares more to Hefford’s style. She brings lots of speed and vision and lots of skills.”
Agosta is also one of the main reasons the Stars go into this weekend’s CWHL championship as the prohibitive favorite to win the Clarkson Cup. Unlike some women players who travel to play weekends for their CWHL teams, Agosta made the full-time move to Montreal, where she and her fiancé are building a home in the suburb of Boisbriand.
“I had so much fun this year,” Agosta said. “I wasn’t too sure what to expect coming to Montreal and not knowing the language, but my teammates took me in. I might have broken the scoring record, but at the end of the day, it’s not about that. Our main goal is to win that Clarkson Cup.”
The championship, which begins Thursday in Niagara Falls, is chock full of elite, all-world talent. Here’s how each of the participating teams shape up:
Regular season record: 22-4-1
Olympians/national team members: Agosta, Caroline Ouellette, Catherine Ward and Sarah Vaillancourt (Canada) and Julie Chu (USA).
The Stars have by far the most offensively talented team in the tournament. This season they scored an astounding 160 goals (an average of 5.9 per game) and outscored the next highest-scoring team by more than 50 goals. But the Stars are also pretty diligent at their own end of the ice, as evidenced by their 66 goals against, which tied for second-best in the league.
The Stars enter the tournament as the hunted and are clearly the odds-on favorite to win.
“When you finish first, people want to move you out of the way,” Trahan said. “They work even harder when they face you.”
The Stars will be without injured Canadian Olympian Sarah Vaillancourt, but will still have more than enough firepower to be a force.
Regular season record: 20-7-0
Olympic/national team players: Kelli Stack, Erika Lawler, Molly Schaus, Jessica Koizumi, Kacey Bellamy (USA).
Led by the league’s top goaltender, Molly Schaus, the Blades gave up the fewest goals in the league this season. But they also have some good offensive skill and enter the championship having beaten each of the teams in the tournament at least once.
“We know that at least the potential exists to beat all these guys,” said Blades coach Lauren McAuliffe, who was named the league’s coach of the year. “It’s just a matter of us making it happen when it matters most and when it’s all on the line. The players on our team are all gamers and I think they’re going to kick it into a gear and I hope they play at a level I haven’t even seen yet.”
Regular season record: 18-7-2
Olympic/national team players: Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford, Cherie Piper, Lori Dupuis, Courtney Birchard, Vicki Bendus and Liz Knox (Canada) and Molly Engstrom (USA).
Brampton will be looking to parlay its enormous amount of international experience into a Clarkson Cup championship. Brampton was able to create a lot of offense and passed the 100-goal mark, but was also the most penalized team in the six-team CWHL this season.
“We have outstanding veteran leadership and our young kids really follow in their footsteps,” said Brampton coach/manager Jody Katz. “We’re coming in with confidence and we’re believing we can be the champions.”
Regular season record: 9-13-5
Olympic/national team players: Tessa Bonhomme, Sami Jo Small, Jess Scanzano, Mallory Deluce (Canada).
It has been a tumultuous season for the Furies, who endured a coaching change and backed into the final four in the last weekend of the regular season. But there have been some bright spots along the way and the Furies are looking at a clean slate in the national tournament. They do not have the star power other teams have, but are anchored on defense by national team stalwart Tessa Bonhomme and a goaltending tandem of Olympic veteran Sami Jo Small and THN art director Erika Vanderveer.
The Furies are hoping to use their ability to deal with adversity as an advantage in the Clarkson Cup.
“The bad times make you stronger in the good times,” said Furies coach Ron Eadie.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.