We’re in the final stretch of the CWHL season, and it’s taken a really exciting turn if you’re a Calgary fan.
First, Rebecca Johnston, who you may remember from such hits as “the gold medal-winning team in the 2010 Olympics” and “again, but in 2014”, made her 2015-16 CWHL season debut. With 37 points in 24 games, Johnston was the league’s leading scorer in 2014-15, so her return to the lineup was almost like adding a ringer of epic proportions – and she proved the point with her first game of the season.
Second, after splitting their weekend series with Les Canadiennes, the Inferno are one win away from clinching home ice in the playoffs.
The Inferno’s DIFD Start the Spark game came with a lot of fanfare. Wearing special purple jerseys for the event – which are in the final hours of being auctioned off – the Inferno teamed up with Do it for Daron, the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, and the Canadian Mental Health Association in support of mental health and suicide prevention. Sheldon Kennedy, along with Calgary Stampeders Bo Levi Mitchell and Rob Cote, participated in the puck drop in front of a sea of purple in the stands to kick off what ended up being a great game.
Johnston saw to it. While evenly played to kick things off, it was her return that resulted in the first two pucks in the net late in the first period – including an unassisted shorthanded goal that quickly put Les Canadiennes, the CWHL’s top team, in a hole.
Unfortunately, Johnston kicked off the second period of her comeback by taking a hooking penalty just 26 seconds in, and Noemie Marin pulled Les Canadiennes back within one such 20 seconds later. (It would seem not having Johnston on the ice doesn’t work out particularly well.) The Inferno continued to control the game, however, and Jill Saulnier scored on the power play late in the period to restore the two-goal lead – assisted by who else, but Johnston.
Brianne Jenner added her stamp to the game by creating a three-goal lead just 18 seconds into the start of the period. While the Inferno have had trouble in the past with creating big leads and then allowing the other team back into the game, that didn’t happen this time, for the most part. They outshot Les Canadiennes 12-6, and though Katia Clement-Heydra got Les Canadiennes’ second goal of the game with just under six minutes to go, that was that.
Delayne Brian stopped 21 of the 23 shots that came her way, and the Inferno handed Les Canadiennes their third loss of the season. It was a huge win for Calgary, as it carried them just one step closer to securing home ice advantage, and even briefly put them in the conversation for first place.
First place, however, was not to be. In the rematch just 14 hours later, the Inferno initially controlled the game, aided in part by a couple of power plays in the first period. But Charline Labonte held strong for Les Canadiennes, refusing to give an inch, and keeping it a scoreless opening frame.
Les Canadiennes took over in the second period, and it paid off in the form of Marin opening the scoring. Labonte continued to pull off her brick wall impersonation, and the Inferno found themselves down one heading into their final home period of the regular season.
It got bleak when Clement-Heydra made it a 2-0 lead just 1:23 into the final frame, but the Inferno pressed, to the tune of outshooting Les Canadiennes 14-7 in the period. Labonte’s shutout seemed inevitable, until Jenner cut through into the slot and eventually sent the puck home, pulling the Inferno within one with just 5:38 left to play.
The Inferno clawed to tie it up, but one goal was all Labonte was giving up on the day. She more than earned her first star honours, stopping 34 of the 35 shots that went her way and clinching first place for Montreal all the while.
Despite being phenomenal in her season debut, Johnston – potentially fatigued from the quick turnaround, especially without having played most of the year – wasn’t nearly as much of a factor. Still, it can’t be stated enough just how much jump she brought to her team initially – and how much more she could provide in the playoffs.
All of this brings us to what should be an extremely exciting final week of the regular season in the CWHL.
Montreal has clinched first place, while the Boston Blades, with just one win on the season – and a shootout win at that – are firmly in last, and out of the playoffs. They play each other in the final week of the season, but both games will be meaningless as Montreal prepares to host the Toronto Furies, who are locked into fourth place with a 6-16-2 record, in the playoffs.
This is where things get really interesting: Calgary, with 32 points, has sole possession of second place; the Brampton Thunder, meanwhile, are in third with 31 points. And they play each other in the season’s final week, a two-game series in Brampton.
This year, CWHL playoffs will see the first and fourth seeds play against one another, as well as the second and third seeds, with the kicker: the first seed hosts the fourth seed, and the second seed hosts the third. The semifinals will consist of two three-game series between the four teams, slated to take place on Feb. 26, 27, and 28, if necessary.
The Inferno’s match-ups against Les Canadiennes were their final home games in the regular season – but they may not be done playing in Calgary just yet. All they need to do is win one of their two games against the Thunder next week, and there will be playoff hockey in Calgary at the end of the month.