Last summer, rumors were made official with the announcement of the CWHL’s expansion into China with Kunlun Red Star set to participate in the 2017-2018 regular season. Less than a year after that announcement, and after a rocky start to the season, Kunlun is making their debut playoff appearance tonight.
Their opponent will be the Calgary Inferno, who enter the playoffs in the midst of a disconcerting four game losing streak. However, this team won the Clarkson Cup two years ago and made it to the final last year. They know the test that lies before them.
After diving into a playoff preview of the Les Canadiennes de Montréal vs. Markham Thunder series the other day, we now turn our attention to the other semi-final set to be played between Kunlun Red Star and Calgary Inferno. Here is how their road to the Clarkson Cup begins.
When I’m Hot, You’re Not
Despite Kunlun Red Star enjoying a spot at the top of the standings for nearly the entire season, they started off the season 2-4-0-0 while Calgary was a blazing 10-0-1-2 before their first regulation loss. Now, Red Star is 4-0-0-1 in their last five games while the Inferno have cooled down to a 1-4-0-0 record to end the regular season. When the two teams met, they matched each other’s efforts. The season series was close, with two games requiring extra time and a goal differential of just +3 in favor of Calgary despite a 4-1 win in game two.
Inferno Run On Fumes While Red Star Shines Bright
Where has Calgary’s offense gone? The team lacked superstar firepower for most of the season because of the Olympics. However, their depth players stepped up and contributed 50 goals in the team’s 13 game point streak to start the season, good for a 3.85 goals per game pace. Olympians Brianne Jenner and Blayre Turnbull have returned, but the scoring has faltered. In their last four games, the Inferno scored only four goals and were shutout for the first time all season. Leading scorer Brittany Esposito has just two goals and one assist in her last seven games. The offense will need to find a spark, which will be no easy task against a Kunlun team which surrendered 52 goals all year, the fewest in the CWHL.
The Red Star offense is red hot coming into the playoffs. In their final four games, Kunlun has scored 16 goals. In the playoffs, it is all about who is firing on all cylinders at the right time. Both Kunlun and Calgary finished the season with 96 goals, but right now Kunlun is finding them and Calgary is not. The club has been able to provide consistent goal support for the best goalie in the league, Noora Räty. If Red Star can continue to find the back of the net during these playoff games with Räty in net, they seem destined for a spot in the finals.
What separated Kunlun from all of their competitors in the CWHL during the regular season was their top-end talent. Kelli Stack finished the season with 49 points to top the leaderboard. Her 26 goals were the most in the league. Interestingly enough, Stack also finished in the top four for PIMs. Zoe Hickel finished with 38 points on the year, giving Kunlun a dynamic one-two punch on offense.
Noora Räty was a brick wall in the blue paint for Red Star. The Finnish Olympian led the league with a 1.60 GAA, a .944 SV%, and 6 shutouts. Räty recorded only 3 losses in 20 games and consistently kept Kunlun in games when the high-flying offense failed to take off. A star goaltender can carry any team to a championship and Räty looks ready to do it.
The regular season series featured close games and thrilling endings, so this postseason matchup should offer more of the same. However, a struggling Calgary Inferno team find themselves in a bit of trouble squaring off against the best scorer and best goaltender of the year. The return of Jenner and Turnbull may be enough to get the Inferno back on track, but Kunlun is quite the obstacle standing in their way.
Tough prediction? Kunlun wins the series 2-0. Easy prediction? They have Noora Räty to thank for it.