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CWHL 2017-18 Season Recap: Calgary Inferno

A review of a heartbreaking season that saw the Calgary Inferno come within one goal of the Clarkson Cup Final.

Iya Gavrilova chases down a puck against the Boston Blades.
Michelle Jay

Season Synopsis

Record: 17-7-1-3

Playoffs: Eliminated in semi-finals, 2-1.

The Calgary Inferno’s 2018 season ended in heartbreak. The team came tantalizingly close to advancing to the Clarkson Cup Finals, but they fell just one goal short in the end. Calgary was eliminated in the semi-finals of a triple overtime thriller by Kunlun Red Star in what was arguably the CWHL game of the year. Unfortunately for the Inferno, that is where their season ended.

Calgary began the year with promise. Their record halfway through the season was a blazing 10-1-1-2, putting them at the top of the standings alongside Kunlun, Montreal, and Vanke. The Inferno continued to string wins together in the second half of the season, but four consecutive losses to end the year locked in their third place finish behind Montreal and Kunlun.

The Inferno’s potent offense was led by Brittany Esposito and Iya Gavrilova. Esposito scored 16 goals and 25 points alongside Gavrilova tallying 18 assists and 24 points. Defender Katelyn Gosling’s seven goals were the third most among blueliners in the league.

What Went Wrong

Despite the disappointing end to their year, Calgary’s 2017-18 season was a successful one. The Inferno faced an uphill battle to start the campaign. Nine players from the team’s 2016-17 roster were centralized for Team Canada in preparation for the 2018 Olympics. Calgary’s veteran players were tasked with guiding the influx of rookies while keeping the team in contention out of the gate. The club seemed to rise to the occasion in basically every manner.

The Inferno ended the season tied with Red Star for the second most goals scored. On the defensive side, they conceded the most goals of any playoff team but maintained a +26 goal differential. A serviceable 1A-1B goaltending duo of veteran Delayne Brian and rookie Lindsey Post kept the team in games long enough for their offense to seal wins. Calgary’s demise was not ushered in by any one significant weakness. Rather, the death of their season came from a thousand cuts.

Calgary’s Iya Gavrilova battles with Boston’s Dru Burnes in front of goaltender Jetta Rackleff during a game between the Boston Blades and Calgary Inferno in Winthrop, MA on Oct. 22, 2017.
Michelle Jay

Special teams were not Calgary’s strong suit.

Both the power play and penalty kill were mediocre: not bad enough to cost the Inferno their season, but not enough to supplement their even-strength play. The penalty kill was unspectacular with an 80 percent rate, but they were the second least penalized team. The power play ran at 16.3 percent with 18 goals, putting them squarely in the middle of the pack.

The team started their season without veteran goaltender Delayne Brian due to injury. Lindsey Post stepped into the starting role and proved her worth, appearing in 13 games with 7 wins, a 0.913 SV% and a 2.21 GAA. Brian would return halfway through the season and hone her game in time for the playoffs. The roster was further bolstered by the return of Olympians Blayre Turnbull and Brianne Jenner in the final weeks of the season.

However, Calgary ended their regular season on the low point of their year. They lost four games in a row — two to Markham and two to Montreal. Entering the playoffs on the cold streak was disconcerting, but their 3-0 win to start the semi-finals put those thoughts to rest.

Unfortunately for Calgary, they just ran into the wrong goalie at the wrong time with Kunlun’s Noora Räty stealing the series and snuffing out the Inferno. It’s also worth mentioning that injuries clipped the Inferno’s wings in the playoffs. Calgary was without Esposito, Gavrilova, and Murray for their final game of the year.

Game of the Year - March 16, 2018

Calgary faced off against Kunlun in the first game of the Clarkson Cup Semi-Finals. The Inferno were in the midst of a cold streak which they would hope to snap against a soaring Red Star team led by Kelli Stack, Zoe Hickel, and Noora Räty. The teams were even in overall offensive production, but Kunlun’s dynamic duo of Stack and Hickel outpaced Calgary’s Esposito and Gavrilova by a significant margin in the regular season. Calgary was also without Esposito for the series, further widening the gap. The real difference in this playoff matchup was in net. Räty’s stellar season showed no signs of stopping going into the playoffs while Delayne Brian got the nod in net for the Inferno. Calgary needed a big win to get back on track.

Finnish Olympian and Kunlun goalie Noora Räty stood in the way of Calgary’s trip to the Clarkson Cup.
Al Saniuk

The teams traded chances to start the game, but Red Star’s Hickel tipped the balance in the Inferno’s favor after getting called on back-to-back penalties in the first ten minutes of the period. Calgary went to work with the skater advantage. American Dakota Woodworth buried the puck behind Räty and gave her team the lead with the first goal of the game. Kunlun had a glorious chance to respond with a 5-on-3 advantage less than five minutes later, but Delayne Brian and the Inferno killed it off. The teams went to intermission separated by one shot and one goal, both in favor of Calgary.

The tone and pace of the game changed in the second period. Kelli Stack’s night ended with her checking from behind penalty and coinciding game misconduct. Kunlun held Calgary off, but immediately went back on the penalty kill after a Shiann Darkangelo interference minor. The Inferno barraged Räty with shots, but the Finnish superstar showed why she was the best goalie in the CWHL. Calgary was unable to extend their lead despite 17 shots in the second period and a 27-15 total shot advantage after 40 minutes of play.

The Inferno finally capitalized on their momentum and rattled Räty in the final frame. Louise Warren, who assisted on Woodworth’s opening goal, scored halfway through the third period to double the lead. Räty was assessed a rare roughing minor less than a minute later which stymied Kunlun’s chances of a quick response. Brittney Fouracres added Calgary’s third goal to close out the game with less than two minutes left.

Delayne Brian’s 20-save shutout made a statement against the deadly Red Star offense. Calgary kept their cool despite Räty’s strong play and they stayed out of the box despite rising tensions. Although they ended up losing the series in a historic third game, this win highlighted the strong team play of the Inferno and gave them a shot at challenging for the Clarkson Cup.

Honorable Mention: 10-3 win over Vanke Rays, January 20, 2018.

Team MVP - Brittany Esposito

Brittany Esposito had a bounce-back year following a disappointing 2016-17 season. The Edmonton native led Calgary in goals with 16 and points with 25. Playing alongside standout veteran Iya Gavrilova, Esposito was able to match the promising rookie numbers she posted in the CWHL four years ago.

Esposito was one of the key veterans for the Inferno who needed to raise their game due to Olympic centralization depleting the Calgary roster of star players. She missed three straight games early in the season, but returned with a vengeance. Starting with her return to the lineup on November 11, Esposito registered a point in seven straight games with six goals and three assists in that span.

Her chemistry with Gavrilova stood out on the powerplay. Esposito scored seven goals with the skater advantage, many of them assisted by the Russian veteran in her sophomore season in the CWHL. Her efforts helped turn the patchwork roster of new faces into a cohesive identity of offensive prowess that led the Inferno to the playoffs and just one goal short of the Clarkson Cup Final.

Standout Rookie - Sophie Shirley

Sophie Shirley was not only Calgary’s standout rookie, she was awarded the Rookie of the Year at the CWHL Awards. Stepping into the Inferno lineup and contributing in place of the team’s Olympic players at 18 years old was a tall task for the Saskatoon native. However, she rose to the challenge and quickly established herself in the league. Shirley scored two goals in her debut in a 3-1 win. She finished her first 10 games with four goals and five assists.

Shirley was a major contributor to the Inferno’s early season success despite an adjustment period due to massive roster turnover. The team settled in around her as she acclimated herself to the CWHL, allowing Shirley to hone her game. Her impressive puck sense and decision making belied her youth and inexperience at this level.

Shirley would end the year with 8 goals and 19 points in 25 regular season games for the Calgary Inferno. The forward was at least four years younger than all of her peers at the top of the scoring leaderboard. Although she was held off the scoresheet in three playoff games, Shirley proved she belonged in the CWHL at her age.

She is committed to play college hockey at the University of Wisconsin in the fall.

It was a disappointing season for the Calgary Inferno, but not for lack of meeting expectations. Rather, the heartbreak of this team lies in how close they were to achieving greatness in the face of a challenging year. Their depth carried them to the playoffs when excuses surrounding a lack of superstars could have been made in the event of a subpar regular season. It was a valiant effort in Calgary, one that the team should be proud of even with their semi-final dismissal. How this roster moves forward in a non-Olympic year will be a story to watch. As it stands, it seems Calgary is poised to compete for the Clarkson Cup yet again next year… but only time will tell.