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2018-19 CWHL Preview: Calgary Inferno

Calgary has been re-ignited by some huge free agent signings

Canada v United States - 2017 IIHF Women’s Gold Medal Game Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The 2018-19 CWHL is finally here, and today we’re taking a closer look at the Calgary Inferno. Calgary added a lot of big free agents during the offseason, including four veterans of the United States women’s national team program. But before we take a look at the Inferno’s additions, let’s take a look at what happened in Calgary last year.

Last Season

The Calgary Inferno finished the 2017–18 season with a record of 17–7–1–3. Calgary lost several key players to centralization for the 2018 Olympics. To fill those open roster spots, general manager Kristen Hagg relied on the team’s depth and the addition of nine rookies. Sophie Shirley, who will be playing with Wisconsin Badgers this year, won the CWHL’s Rookie of the Year Award with her 19-point campaign.

Calgary looked destined to be competing for the Clarkson Cup halfway through the season, but a four-game losing streak at the end of the year made them look vulnerable. So too did the Inferno’s .898 save percentage and lackluster special teams play.

The Inferno’s greatest strength last year was its offense, which tied for second with Kunlun Red Star in goals per game. Calgary finished the year with a +28 goal differential, but couldn’t find a goal when it mattered the most in the Clarkson Cup Semifinal, which they lost 1-0 to Kunlun.

Offseason Moves

Canadian Olympians Brianne Jenner, Brigette Lacquette, Rebecca Johnston, and Blayre Turnbull are all back with the Inferno for the 2018–19 season. So too is Aina (Takeuchi) Mizumaki, who played for Team Japan at the PyeongChang Olympics. All five of those returning Olympians will be playing under new head coach Shannon Miller.

The biggest story of Calgary’s offseason was the addition of some big names from the United States women’s national team program, including Brianna Decker and Kacey Bellamy. The Inferno look absolutely stacked heading into the 2018–19 season.

In: Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Zoe Hickel, Tori Hickel, Halli Krzyzaniak, Alex Rigsby, Venla Hovi, Annie Belanger, Rebecca Leslie, Eden Murray, Kaitlin Willoughby

Out: Sophie Shirley, Delayne Brian, Geneviève Lacasse, Jillian Saulnier, Brittany Esposito, Hayleigh Cudmore, Megan Grenon, Elana Lovell, Kennedy Brown, Taryn Baumgardt, Brittney Fouracres, Kayla Gardner, Iya Gavrilova (ACL injury, out for season)

Iya Gavrilova’s injury is a huge loss for the Inferno.
Michelle Jay

Three Players to Watch

Brianna Decker

Seriously, how can we not talk about Decker joining the Inferno? The American center is one of the three best players in the world and is back in the CWHL after a three-year hiatus.

In her only CWHL season to date, the 5-foot-4 center scored 32 points in 12 games with the Boston Blades. In her professional career, Decker has averaged 2.04 points per game, excluding the 22 points she has piled up in nine Clarkson Cup and Isobel Cup Playoff games.

Decker has won at every level. She now has an Olympic gold, five golds at the Women’s World Championship, a Clarkson Cup, an Isobel Cup, an NCAA title, a Patty Kazmaier Award, and two NWHL MVPs to her name. This year she has a chance to perhaps prove something by winning a championship without having Hilary Knight on her wing.

Halli Krzyzaniak

The University of North Dakota alumna will add a lot of size, strength, and skill to Calgary’s blue line this year. Kryzyzaniak, 23, began her pro career in the SDHL last season playing for Djurgårdens IF. She didn’t put up a lot of points in Sweden, but offense has never been her game. She’s a 5-foot-9 shutdown defender with great mobility for her size. She used that mobility to block 76 shots in 36 games during her senior season at North Dakota.

Krzyzaniak has won three silver medals with Team Canada at the Women’s Worlds, but was left off of Team Canada’s roster for the PyeongChang Olympics. With Calgary, she has an opportunity to once again prove that she belongs on the national team. She should give the Inferno an element they haven’t had said Meaghan Mikkelson left the team to play in the SDHL.

Finland v Canada - 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship Semifinal Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Rebecca Leslie

Leslie, the youngest skater on the Inferno this year, is coming off of a huge senior season at Boston University where she scored 57 points — 24 of which were goals — in 33 games. The Inferno’s second round pick in the 2018 Draft knows how to put pucks on net. Leslie averaged 5.24 shots per-game in her breakout senior season and 4.38 SOG/GP in her junior season.

The Inferno lost some valuable players in addition to all of the talent they brought in, so adding a quality rookie like Leslie should go a long way towards re-establishing Calgary’s scoring depth.

Three Games to Watch

Decker vs. Knight | Saturday, Oct. 13

Calgary’s first game of the season is, to put it simply, must-watch hockey. Decker, Bellamy, Rigsby, and Zoe Hickel will be facing off against Hilary Knight and Les Canadiennes in Montréal for a two-game series. Oh, it will also be the first time that Decker has crossed sticks with Marie-Philip Poulin since Team USA’s victory in the gold medal game at PyeongChang.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Home Opener | Saturday, Oct. 20

The Inferno will skate on their home ice for the first time on Oct. 20 when they host the re-branded Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. This two-game series will also serve as a rematch of last year’s Clarkson Cup Semifinal, which will give Calgary an opportunity to prove their quality.

November Home Stand Begins | Saturday, Nov. 24 - Dec. 2

The Inferno will have a four-game home stand in late November that includes a game played at Max Bell Centre - Arena 2 and Cochrane Arena. By late November, we should have a good idea of just how good this new and improved Inferno roster is, and if we don’t, a back-to-back two-game series against Les Canadiennes and the Markham Thunder should do the trick.

Predictions

It would be surprising, if not downright alarming, for the Inferno to finish any lower than second in the standings at the conclusion of the regular season. They have an abundance of talent throughout the lineup. There will even be less pressure on Jenner to generate offense thanks to the addition of Decker and the return of Johnston.

Calgary has to be an early favorite to win the Clarkson Cup, but they aren’t the only team in the CWHL that looks stacked heading into the season. How does a Clarkson Cup Final between the Inferno and Les Canadiennes sound to you?

Final Thoughts

Shannon Miller is a highly regarded coach who knows how to get the most out of her players. Her presence in Calgary almost certainly played a role in helping the Inferno recruit some of their biggest free agent signings. “To have the opportunity to play for Shannon Miller is a complete honor, seeing what she has done and continues to do for our sport,” Bellamy shared in a team press release.

Miller’s predecessor, Tomas Pacina, won the CWHL’s Coach of the Year Award in 2018. Miller is already an early favorite to bring home that hardware as Calgary’s newest bench boss. Keep an eye out for Zoe Hickel to play a big role in the Inferno’s offense. She and Brigette Lacquette both played under Miller for four years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.