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Montreal Stars pursue third consecutive Clarkson Cup championship

The Montreal Stars are chasing a Clarkson Cup three-peat. The league-leading Boston Blades intend to thwart that bid.

The rivals are the favourites to win the championship tournament of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, starting Wednesday in Markham, Ont.

The Brampton Thunder and the Toronto Furies round out the four-team tournament.

The Blades joined the CWHL in 2010 and look to become the first U.S.-based team to win the Clarkson Cup.

“It’s pretty clearly Montreal and Boston are the top two teams,” Thunder forward Jayna Hefford says.

“Boston finished in first place in the league, but they’re very close those two teams. Depth-wise they’re really strong, both of them.”

The Clarkson Cup trophy, ensconced earlier this month in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, was donated to women’s hockey by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in 2006.

It wasn’t awarded until 2009 because of a licensing dispute with the trophy’s artists.

Montreal won the Clarkson Cup in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Their record this season was 18-5-1, just behind Boston at 19-4-1.

Brampton (10-12-2) and Toronto (10-13-1) were a distant third and fourth respectively.

“For Brampton, we’re sort of a wild card in it all,” Hefford said. “I like where our team is at right now. I think we have the potential to go in and really challenge to win the Cup.”

Stars forward Caroline Ouellette expects a stiff challenge from the Blades.

“It’s pretty amazing the rivalry we have with Boston,” Ouellette says. “I think there’s a lot of respect between the two teams. It makes for a lot of fast and really skilled games. We’ve played a lot of games and a lot of times it was so close.”

Their rivalry almost breaks down along national lines, but not quite.

The Blades are loaded with players from the U.S. national women’s team, but Genevieve Lacasse from Kingston, Ont., is a Blades goaltender. Lacasse was one of three goalies named to Canada’s world championship roster Monday.

Including Ouellette and Meghan Agosta-Marciano, the CWHL’s leading scorer two straight seasons, the Stars boast five players from Canada’s current roster. But American forward Julie Chu, a three-time Olympian, also plays for Montreal.

“Although I’ve been on the national team and won some pretty amazing things with the national team, winning the Clarkson Cup was really special,” Ouellette says. “I hope that I can achieve it again.”

The 2013 women’s world championship is April 2-9 in Ottawa.

Of the 23 players named to Canada’s world championship roster Monday, 17 are out of the CWHL and 15 will play in the Clarkson Cup.

“This year we had so many great college graduates come into the league and it has made such a difference because every game was a battle,” Ouellette said.

“People coming from last year to this year have said how much the league has improved this year.”

The CWHL folded its Burlington team last year to make the two remaining teams in the Toronto area more competitive.

An Alberta team, the Honeybadgers, is in its second season in the five-team league and didn’t make it into this year’s Clarkson Cup with a 3-21 record.

“I think the biggest thing I see is each year, the quality of play gets better,” Hefford says. “Montreal and Boston, they’re so deep that they have a third line that is going to have national-team players on it.

“The league certainly has its challenge financially and finding sponsorship and all that sort of stuff. As long as we’re making sure the on-ice performance and product is good, I think the league will continue to get better.”

Boston and Toronto open the 2013 Clarkson Cup on Wednesday. The championship game is Sunday at Centennial Arena.