Like every other game this season between the Thunder and the Inferno, it could have gone either way. Despite a slew of penalties and a couple of very late chances for Brampton that almost forced overtime, it went Calgary's way Friday night as the Inferno took Game One of the Clarkson Cup semis, 4-2, at Winsport.
The win marked the Inferno's first-ever postseason victory, as they were swept by their opponents in two consecutive seasons of Clarkson Cup playoff action.
Calgary outshot Brampton 17-2 in the first period, taking advantage of the larger ice surface to spread out the play and display their speed coming down the wings. Although Erica Howe did her best to hold them at bay, the Inferno solved her within the last five minutes of the opening frame, scoring twice on the power play -- one a blast by Hayley Wickenheiser from the point, and the other a tip-in high by Jillian Saulnier in a scrum after Howe lost sight of the puck. Brampton (and Howe in particular) seemed jumpy and ill-at-ease in their first ever playoff action; meanwhile, the Inferno played exactly the way they wanted to, executing speed, effective puck movement and neutralizing Jamie Lee Rattray and Laura Fortino.
The Thunder were able to hit their stride in the second period, throwing 10 shots at Delayne Brian and maintaining their own zone at the same time. A bad rebound by Delayne Brian led to Jenna McParland sweeping the puck into the net to cut the lead in half, and while Calgary was jolted back into applying pressure and creating chances late in the period, Brampton was able to keep the middle closed and keep the Inferno's shooters to the outside.
In the third, the Thunder were gifted with multiple power play opportunities, but a shorthanded goal pulled them to within one. After Blayre Turnbull made it 3-1 for the Inferno, Rebecca Vint flew into the Calgary zone, deking around Hayleigh Cudmore and putting a high backhand shot past Brian with her team down a skater. Brampton pulled Howe for the extra skater a few minutes later on another power play for a 6-on-4 advantage, and it very nearly paid off -- a shot from the point threw Brian out of position, and the ensuing rebound missed a wide open net. On the final clear, Rebecca Johnston shook off a backchecking Sarah Edney and put away the game with an empty netter.
The Inferno should definitely be breathing a sigh of relief after this game. While they played admirably, particularly in the first period, they have to stay out of the box, and they have to manage the puck better in their own zone to avoid giving it away to an opportunistic Brampton offense. Shot blocking was key for them in the first two periods; once they began to take penalties and disturb their own flow, they got away from that aspect of their game, and it could make a difference. Brian is a good goaltender, but like any goalie, she could certainly benefit from having extra protection in front of her, especially since the Thunder will be looking to come out of the gate flying tomorrow (something they didn't do tonight).
It's a brand new game tomorrow, as the Inferno look to seal the series and the Thunder will try to even it up. Puck drop is at 6:15 p.m. MST (8:15 EST) at Winsport. Tickets are available via the CWHL's online shop, and fans can also watch the entire Clarkson Cup playoffs via CWHL Live ($10 CAD). Tomorrow's game will also be broadcast to Canadian viewers on Sportsnet One.