The Calgary Inferno had to know they were facing a tough opponent in the CWHL playoff semifinals. Having just narrowly secured home ice advantage against the Brampton Thunder the week before in a playoff preview, it looked to be a series that would feature two teams closely matched up against one another.
The Inferno dominated to start, but the Thunder clawed their way back into it to make for an extremely intense game that came down to the last seconds.
In the end, the Inferno prevailed, and are now one win away from going to the Clarkson Cup. Game 2 is today, Feb. 27, at 6:15 p.m. in Winsport’s Markin MacPhail rink.
To say the Inferno dominated to start would be putting things lightly. The first period kicked off with Calgary outshooting Brampton 17-2, controlling the puck and setting up shop seemingly permanently in the offensive zone. Really, it was the heroics of Erica Howe that kept her team in the game.
Despite all their pressure, the Inferno were only able to beat Howe twice in that first period, and only on the power play. Hayley Wickenheiser broke Howe’s shutout bid 14:51 into the game (and considering how that’s how long it took the Inferno to score, she really did deserve a better fate), and Jill Saulnier made it a two-goal lead 2:02 later, capitalizing off of Rebecca Johnston’s rebound.
Through just 20 minutes, the Inferno seemed to have the game in the bag. The Thunder didn’t look like their hearts were in it, pushed around by the second seeded team and just trying to keep up. Like the Inferno, they had two power plays in the first period as well; unlike the Inferno, they not only didn’t score on them, but they barely even applied pressure.
They woke up in the second period, though.
An intermission break was what the Thunder needed, and following that, the game looked far more like what was expected. The Thunder outshot the Inferno 10-7 this time around, scoring one goal courtesy of Jenna McParland at even strength.
With the Thunder pressing, it was up to the Inferno to hold them off in the final 20 minutes to secure their first playoff victory. Outshooting the Thunder 9-7, they were able to succeed – for the most part.
A Rebecca Vint penalty for body checking – the second of three such penalties in what turned out to be a rather physical game – just under halfway through the third period sent the Inferno to the power play, only to be nullified when Bailey Bram took a holding call six seconds letter.
Four-on-four favoured the Inferno, however, as that was when Blayre Turnbull found the back of the net, restoring Calgary’s two-goal lead.
With 10:03 left in regulation, all the Inferno had to do was play it safe and smart.
But this is the team the Inferno twice went up 4-0 against, only to let Brampton back into the game in the regular season. This is what makes them such great playoff opponents: there’s zero quit to be found on either side. When Kristen Richards went off for holding, it could have been the Thunder’s death knell – but instead, her penalty gave her team life when Vint scored shorthanded, making it a 3-2 game.
Throw in a Johnston call for hooking with just 2:25 to go, and it was a very tense finish for a game where the Inferno had initially been outshooting the Thunder 22-5, featuring plenty of mad scrambles around Delayne Brian’s net – including a missed wide open net on the Thunder’s part.
When Johnston got back on the ice, her teammates having successfully killed her penalty, she dove right into the fray – literally – knocking pucks lose and doing her best to make sure the Thunder didn’t score in the final seconds. She caught a break with 10 seconds to go, able to score an empty netter, and with that, secure a 4-2 win for the Inferno.
Saulnier, Jocelyn Laroque, and Wickenheiser were the three stars of the game: one that looked lopsided to start, but ended with hearts beating out of chests as the Inferno narrowly secured the win in Game 1.
Game 2 is later tonight, and a Calgary victory would send them to the Clarkson Cup against the winner of the Les Canadiennes/Toronto Furies series. Les Canadiennes currently lead the series 1-0 after a 5-1 win over the Furies. The Clarkson Cup takes place on March 13 in Ottawa.