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Calgary Inferno Cruises to Clarkson Cup Victory in Convincing Fashion

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From the outset, the notion that the Calgary Inferno were an underdog heading into the Clarkson Cup finals was nothing short of preposterous. While Les Canadiennes de Montreal finished the regular season with the league’s best record, capturing the Chairman’s Trophy, the Inferno had accumulated 16 wins, providing strong performances throughout the season.

The outcome of the CWHL’s Award Night definitely added to Montreal’s momentum and its status at the Cup favorite. Of note, Marie-Philip Poulin became the first player in league history to win three awards. In addition to the Angela James Bowl, awarded to the league’s scoring leader, and League MVP honors, she was the inaugural recipient of the Jayna Hefford Trophy, in which the CWHLPA recognizes its most outstanding player.

Complemented by Charline Labonte garnering the Most Outstanding Goaltender Award and team co-founder (a member of the CWHL’s Sensational Seven) Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux winning the CWHL’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, it would have been all too easy to expect a Clarkson Cup to follow.

With over 4000 fans in attendance at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, the first Clarkson Cup final contested in an NHL arena, the Inferno could have been forgiven if they felt like the visiting team. Considering that Ottawa is in close proximity to Montreal, the overwhelming majority of fans were supporters of Les Canadiennes. Such support was evident during player introductions, as the roar of the crowd reached high decibels whenever a Montreal player was announced.

Despite facing such a disadvantage, the Inferno quickly silenced the Montreal faithful. With hockey luminaries such as IIHF Hall of Famer Fran Rider, Natalie Spooner, the first woman to win the Clarkson and Winter Games gold in the same year, and 2006 gold medalist Katie Weatherston, the Inferno assembled a masterful eight goal performance as 11 different players registered at least one point to humble Les Canadiennes, handing them their third finals loss in four years.

There was a strong feeling of redemption for the Inferno, having endured a visceral first-round elimination to the preceding Montreal Stars in the 2015 edition of the Clarkson Cup playoffs. Adding to such postseason heartbreak was the fact that the Inferno had not even scored one goal against Montreal, despite the presence of Rebecca Johnston, who captured the Angela James Bowl that year, the first in Inferno history to do so.

Fast forward one year later and Johnston made a quick impression. At the 2:26 mark of the opening frame, she became the first player in Inferno history to score a goal in the Clarkson Cup finals. Earning the assists on such a historic goal were Brianne Jenner and Jillian Saulnier, who had also played with Johnston at the NCAA level with the Cornell Big Red. Said goal provided the Inferno with the early 1-0 lead, quickly silencing a pro-Montreal crowd.

Although Marie-Philip Poulin would tie the game approximately five minutes later on the power play, the Inferno retaliated with their own power play marker, as Brianne Jenner restored their lead at the 15:53 mark. With the tide in their favor, the Inferno would add to said lead against a dejected Canadiennes squad in the second stanza as Jessica Campbell and Blayre Turnbull extended the lead to a 4-1 mark. As a side note, Turnbull’s goal would stand as the Cup winner, adding a significant milestone to her career. It was only fitting that Wickenheiser would earn the assist on said goal, as it marked her Cup debut.

Canadiennes legend Noemie Marin would try to bring her squad back into the game with a goal at the 12:58 mark of the second. Just 23 seconds later, Turnbull added her second goal of the game as Wickenheiser and rookie sensation Brigette Lacquette logged the assists.

With Ann-Sophie Bettez called for hooking early in the third, Campbell would capitalize on the power play, the second of the game for the Inferno as a stunned crowd saw the Inferno enjoy a convincing 6-2 lead. Campbell’s goal also added to the sense of history on this day for the Inferno. While Meaghan Mikkelson-Reid, who would celebrate in the post-game on-ice celebration with her infant son Calder, earned one of the assists, the other was logged by Aina Takeuchi, making her the first Japanese-born player to register a point in Clarkson Cup play.

Cornell alums Johnston and Jenner would score the remaining goals for the Inferno in what eventually was an 8-3 final. Of note, they were not the only Cornell alums to celebrate in the Inferno’s historic Cup win. Joining them was Campbell, Hayleigh Cudmore and Jillian Saulnier.  

For Johnston and Jenner, the Cup win provided an extra bonus. Along with coach Gina Kingsbury, and teammates Mikkelson-Reid and Wickenheiser, all five become the newest members of the Triple Gold Club for Women, which recognizes a Cup win, Winter Games gold and an IIHF gold medal victory.

The biggest key to victory for the Inferno was a remarkable depth on offense. While Les Canadiennes feature one of the world’s finest players in Marie-Philip Poulin, whose exceptional stickhandling skills impressed both Calgary and Montreal fans alike during the final, along with a living legend in Caroline Ouellette, the reality is that Montreal’s top scoring line was stifled, and there seemed to be a lack of scoring depth for a frustrated Montreal team, whereas Calgary iced three solid lines.

An additional factor which contributed to the victory was the presence of assistant coach Gina Kingsbury. Having won two gold medals for Canada in women’s ice hockey at the Winter Games as a member of the blueline, her world-class skill translated into a sound defensive strategy for the Inferno. While some members of the Inferno’s blueline corps may not be recognizable names, their tutelage under Kingsbury showed throughout the game, shutting down the opposition.

Equally notable was the last line of defense for the Inferno. Goaltender Delayne Brian faced 41 shots, showing poise and an iron will to deny Les Canadiennes. With all the pregame talk surrounding Labonte and her nod as the Goaltender of the Year, Brian staked her claim, capturing the imagination of fans and players alike in the game of her life.

Photo credits: Mark Staffieri

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