It's a very similar picture to what it was last year for the Calgary Inferno: after a great first half of the season, they faltered late, losing their grip on first place in the final two weekends of the season. Like last year, Montreal went on a tear and took advantage, quickly becoming the team to beat in the CWHL.
Unlike last year, however, the Inferno went to Markham, encountered a red-hot Charline Labonte and were absolutely stymied on offense en route to missing the Clarkson Cup Final. This season, it's a little bit different; they have the chance to redeem themselves in the playoffs, on their own ice.
The reformatted version of the Clarkson Cup playoffs involves a best-of-three series in the first round, on the higher seed's home ice. The Inferno clinched home ice in their final game of the regular season with a win over the same Brampton Thunder they now have to beat to get to the championship, and at Winsport, that makes a difference, particularly in terms of the size of the ice surface. Calgary's Olympic-sized ice rink allows for more space to make plays and move the puck, something the Inferno have had to keep in mind when playing elsewhere.
"Brampton plays in a rink that's smaller than ours, so we had to make some adjustments when we played there," forward Jenna Cunningham said via email. "Playing at home allows us to not focus on the size of the rink, but just the game itself."
Focusing on the game is important for Calgary in this series, as Brampton has played the regular season against them to a draw. In fact, had the Inferno not won in regulation last Sunday, a series of tiebreakers would have been needed (including ROW, goal differential, and home wins) to determine who would get home ice.
However, Calgary was able to regroup after a loss Saturday, coming back from an 0-3 deficit and then pulling out a 5-4 lead late to get the two points they needed Sunday afternoon.
I think that win was a great test for us," forward and captain Brianne Jenner said. "Being able to come out on top in a battle like last Sunday's game against Brampton proved that we can win those character games... I believe we are playing our best hockey we have played all season in the last two weeks."
As mentioned in earlier previews of this matchup, Brampton is no longer the team lost in a rebuilding season. The Thunder are a lot like Calgary in that they have a cluster of 20-plus point scorers, rather than one superstar. Rebecca Vint has tallied the most goals on the team (19), but Jamie Lee Rattray carries the point scoring with 29 in 22 games played. Laura Fortino, just behind her at 28 points, has 20 assists on the year, earning her CWHL Defender of the Year and League MVP nominations Thursday afternoon. That kind of puck movement and playmaking has certainly had its effect on the Inferno this season -- she's scored 10 points in six games against them, including a pair of three-point matches the weekend of Jan. 9-10.
But it's more than that -- the Thunder have proven they can match the Inferno's speed and beat them along the wall, as well as force turnovers (whether on carryout or clearing attempts). Erica Howe's glove hand was hot against them last weekend as well, while Delayne Brian had a rough time in net and was pulled Sunday in favor of Kathy Desjardins. The Inferno have also displayed an unfortunate tendency to mishandle the puck both along the boards and in front of the net, leading to both chances and goals going the other way. Brampton's exploited that a few times with its quick transition game.
"There are areas of our game that we will want to focus more on when we play certain teams, but by playoffs you try to just focus on your team and what you can control," Cunningham said of having to tweak Calgary's game to face Brampton in the postseason. "We know they are relentless, and so we know come Friday night we are going to have be ready to battle."
As a 100-plus-game veteran with the Inferno at this point, Cunningham has seen a lot of change in the league and is excited about the new playoff format. She also took note of her changing role on the team; rather than be relied on for the bulk of scoring, she is more of a depth player on a team with plenty of talent up front.
"This year has perhaps been the biggest change [in my role]," she said. "That being said, my job is to be there to support my teammates in what ever capacity that may be. I know how important it is to have everyone on the same page and everyone play their role. Hopefully I can provide some leadership and energy on the ice and on the bench."
Jenner's impact has been most visible on the scoresheet this regular season, and her Olympic pedigree (as well as that of teammates Hayley Wickenheiser and Rebecca Johnston) means she's used to high-pressure situations.
"I think no matter if you wear a letter or not everyone kind of turns up their intensity for playoffs," she said. "It's hard not to get excited during playoff hockey. I hope I can lead by example, but we have so many great leaders and veteran players on our team that my job isn't difficult."
Fellow rookies Elana Lovell, Blayre Turnbull, and Jillian Saulnier will factor into that success as well. Turnbull had a breakout weekend in the final games of the season, while Lovell has been solid all year, tying Jenner in points (24) and earning a Rookie of the Year nomination as well.