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Inferno heading into season against new-look Blades roster

Brianne Jenner and the rest of the Inferno look to establish themselves early on as the team to beat heading into Opening Weekend against Boston.
Brianne Jenner and the rest of the Inferno look to establish themselves early on as the team to beat heading into Opening Weekend against Boston.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Calgary Inferno come into the CWHL season fashionably late, having sat out Opening Week, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still turn heads.

This weekend’s matchup is a tale of two teams with similar stories, yet ones that could turn into inverse results. The departure of several key players, many of them U.S. Olympians, from the CWHL has resulted in the 2015 Clarkson Cup champions potentially looking up from lesser heights. Meanwhile, Calgary’s newest draft class has them stacked up front and ready to chase every opposing goaltender from her net.

As it stands right now, the Inferno have the strongest roster in the league, with a potent offense headed by Rebecca Johnston, Haley Irwin (who seems to be healthy) and newcomers Brianne Jenner and Hayley Wickenheiser. The impressive rookie class from last season is back and ready to go, and in the winter, they’re poised to have a defensive powerhouse -- Brigette Lacquette of the University of Minnesota Duluth -- join the ranks. Overall, it’s another exciting squad looking to hit the ice at Winsport.

Its rise, of course, depends on how much time skaters have had to come together as a group. It also depends on everyone else in the league.

The large amount of turnover Calgary’s first opponent -- the Boston Blades -- has had in the past couple of months has led to a new look, both on and behind the bench. Gone are Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Rachel Llanes, Blake Bolden, Meghan Duggan, and Brittany Ott, among others, as well as general manager Aronda Kirby and head coach Digit Murphy. In their place comes a slew of New England locals, a new GM in Krista Patronick, and former UNH coach Brian McCloskey to oversee the bench.

The Blades split their first weekend of play against the Toronto Furies, losing 2-0 Saturday and bouncing back for a 2-1 shootout win Sunday. Long gone seem to be the days when Boston would dominate the ice; Toronto outshot them by fairly wide margins in both games, and the low scores in each match are proof that the Blades offense isn’t what it once was (though they did have their fair share of chances, putting up more than 20 shots per game).

Genevieve Lacasse, however, is just the same; she stood on her head against the Furies, withstanding 88 shots over two games. As the season progresses, she may prove to be the blessing for this team. Her real test will come against many of her own teammates on this Calgary offense, which could be a good or bad thing depending on how well she knows their tendencies (and how well they know hers).

The net might be Calgary’s one weakness. Delayne Brian was solid last season, but faltered during the Clarkson Cup playoffs when pitted against Montreal’s offense and a formidable netminder in Charline Labonte. Kathy Desjardins makes her comeback to the CWHL, and head coach Scott Reid was impressed with her level of fitness, but time will tell where she's at hockey-wise. Then again, if the puck spends the majority of its time in the offensive zone, it'll barely matter.

Opening faceoff is set for 6:15 p.m. Mountain time (8:15 p.m. Eastern) Saturday and 8 a.m. Mountain (10 a.m. Eastern) on Sunday at Winsport's Joan Snyder Rink. Those watching at home can purchase the CWHL's streaming package, which has been enlarged to include 32 games, all for $19.95 CAD (less than $16 USD). Check out cwhllive.com and/or cwhl.ca for details.