The return of forward Rebecca Johnston to the Calgary Inferno lineup last Saturday at Winsport was enough to get any fan excited.
But then Johnston hit the ice and scored three points, including two goals, and that excitement spilled over into sheer jubilation as the Inferno sailed to a 4-2 win over Les Canadiennes de Montreal.
They would go on to split the weekend with Montreal with a tight 2-1 loss Sunday (which is to be expected, as Les Canadiennes have become the team to beat), but that aside, the impact the two-time Olympic gold medalist has on this roster is obvious.
Johnston was all over the ice, cycling the puck well with Brianne Jenner to help generate offense in the Montreal zone when the Inferno could set up there. Her first goal was a simply net-crasher, cleaning up a Jenner rebound nicely left there by Charline Labonte. Her second was on a great individual effort, pinning Karell Emard at the wall as Emard attempted to clear the zone, bringing play back the other way and popping the puck over Labonte's shoulder on a beautiful backhand shot.
That kind of offense hasn't exactly been lacking on a roster full of names like Jenner and Wickenheiser, and in Johnston's absence this season, other players have stepped up to the plate. Campbell and Brittany Esposito have continued to develop, each putting up 20 points thus far, and Jill Saulnier and Elana Lovell have had excellent rookie seasons thus far (Lovell is tied with fellow rookie Jenner for the team lead in points with 25).
But this is a team that has shown a tendency to plateau, especially after the All-Star Break. After last year's inaugural All-Star Game, Calgary has a 7-4-1 record, but only two of those came against competitive teams (at that time, Boston and Montreal). The Inferno swept one series with Toronto and its final weekend against Brampton, but lost two of three to the Blades and (former) Stars, both teams who participated in the Clarkson Cup final. After topping the Stars 4-1 on Jan. 31, the Inferno managed only three more goals against this team in its last two games of the weekend. They fared slightly better against Boston, but still allowed three goals or more over the course of Valentine's Day weekend in 2015 (albeit on a team just as stacked on offense that season as they were).
In 2014-15, the one constant on offense seemed to be Johnston, who put up 37 points in all 24 games played for Calgary (the next closest was Esposito with 25). This season, she's got a lot more help around her on offense, but if Saturday is any indication, she's the piece needed for this team to kick it into high gear.
And high gear is exactly what the Inferno need. After going 14-2-2 heading into the All-Star Break this season, they've dropped three of their last four games, all against the same opponent -- Montreal. They are now facing their final weekend against a team nipping at their heels in Brampton.
The Thunder have made a terrific comeback from their last-place finish in 2015, now just one point (31) behind Calgary for second place. They can tie them with a win and a shootout loss, prompting a series of tiebreakers that could have the Inferno losing home-ice advantage for the Clarkson Cup playoffs.
In many ways, Brampton is like the Inferno, although with a defender (Laura Fortino) at the top of their stat chart. The Thunder don't have quite the same firepower as the Inferno, but have managed to get to a respectable place in the standings with a cluster of 20-plus point scorers and solid goaltending by Erica Howe and Liz Knox. Rookie forward Rebecca Vint has been a revelation, scoring 17 goals and 24 points in 22 games. Brampton has pushed Calgary into overtime and the shootout twice this season, including a wild 8-7 shootout loss for the Inferno that saw them cough up a 7-5 lead in the third period, so it's clear by now that they can't be tossed aside -- especially with this much on the line.
The Inferno will likely have that last loss to the Thunder in the back of their minds as they head into Memorial Rink Saturday. Overconfidence was a factor in that game, as was a quick unraveling of their back end; this weekend, they'll have to protect Delayne Brian and keep Brampton away from the front of the net. Puck protection is also a concern -- clears and carry-outs have been a struggle recently for Calgary, so they need to make sure they don't do the Thunder any favors by coughing up the puck right in front of their goalie. And of course, they need to strike early and often, capitalizing on their strong transitions and speed heading into the offensive zone.
Puck drop is set for 4:30 p.m. MST (6:30 p.m. EST) Saturday and 11:30 a.m. (1:30 p.m.) Sunday at Memorial Brampton. Catch Sunday's game stream on CWHL Live, and follow @InfernoCWHL on Twitter for all game-day information and scores.