Rebecca Johnston holds the hot hand during CWHL’s opening weekend

Heading into the 2014-15 Canadian Women’s Hockey League season, the Calgary Inferno boasted the finest off-season among the five franchises. In addition to the offseason trades for Mercyhurst Lakers legend Bailey Bram and 2014 Sochi gold medalist Haley Irwin, the biggest acquisition may have been the free agent signing of Rebecca Johnston.

A former first round pick of the Toronto Furies in the 2012 CWHL Draft, Johnston has enjoyed a career filled with accolades and awards, including two gold medals at the Winter Games. During the CWHL’s opening weekend of the 2014-15 campaign, Johnston’s signing already began to pay dividends for the franchise.

RJCal

Starting the season against the defending Clarkson Cup champion Toronto Furies, Johnston recorded two goals in a 5-4 shootout loss. Despite the loss, the presence of Johnston, Bram and Irwin, certainly Calgary’s Big Three on offense, constantly added pressure on the Furies. Of note, the Inferno reached double digits in shots for each period (17 in the first, 16 in the second, 14 in the third).

While Kristy Zamora, appearing in her 172nd career game, four away from breaking the league’s all-time record for games played, opened the scoring at 2:20, Johnston led the charge to tie the score. With an assist by Jessica Wong (the first overall pick in the 2013 edition of the CWHL Draft), Johnston slipped the puck past former Canadian national team member Christina Kessler at the 7:12 mark.

Although the first period ended in a 3-3 tie, featuring power play goals from each side, Johnston provided the Inferno with its first lead of the game at the 14:42 mark of the second stanza. With assists going to Jacquie Pierri and Madison Haller, the youngest player in the CWHL, it provided the Inferno with confidence.

Despite the fact that Tessa Bonhomme would tie the game for the Furies, forcing overtime and a proceeding shootout, Johnston led all players in the game with two goals scored, earning one of the game’s Three Stars. Her presence certainly created a positive influence. Of note, the Inferno outshot the Furies by a convincing 52-29 margin. Other offensive highlights on the night included a pair of assists by Bram, a power play goal by Irwin, and the first CWHL points for rookies Sarah Davis and Louise Warren.

The following day, the Inferno travelled to Brampton to challenge the new-look Thunder. With Brampton’s rookie backstop Erica Howe making her CWHL debut, it would prove to be a baptism of fire.
Of note, Jenna Cunningham scored a hat trick, while rookie Brittany Esposito logged three assists in only her second CWHL game. Their contributions were complemented by a three point night by Johnston.

Although Howe was solid between the pipes, nullifying four Inferno power play attempts in the first period, Calgary would jump out to a 1-0 advantage. Cunningham logged the first goal of the game at 9:02 with Johnston and Esposito earning the helpers.

During the second stanza, Calgary jumped out to leads of 2-0 and then 3-1. Johnston would score at 4:16, while Haley Irwin logged a power play goal just 17 seconds into their first power play of the second, with Johnston earning her third point of the game. Ironically, Laura Fortino, the first pick overall of the 2014 CWHL Draft was serving a cross checking penalty.

As a side note, Fortino would log her first career CWHL point during Brampton’s goal at the 5:56 mark of the second. Carly Mercer would score on the power play, while Fortino and 2014 Kazmaier Award winner Jamie Lee Rattray earned the assist. Coincidentally, it was the first career CWHL point for all three of the players.

Cunningham would score two more times in the final frame while Mercer logged another tally in the 5-2 final. For the second consecutive game, the Inferno would reach double digits in shots in each of the periods. A total of 13 shots were registered in the first, followed by a game-high 15 shots in the second, while the squad peppered Howe and backup goalie Sonja van der Bliek with 14 more shots in the third.

Perhaps the most irmpessive statistic was the fact that seven different Inferno players registered at least one point (Cunningham, Esposito, Irwin, Johnston, Hayleigh Cudmore, Madison Haller and Jessica Wong). With a proud franchise looking to build on its first postseason appearance in 2014, Johnston may be the catalyst that brings them to even bigger heights in 2015, as the club looks to win its first regular season title and qualify for its first Clarkson Cup finals.

Haley Irwin westward bound as Calgary Inferno rebuilds their offense

Coming off a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Haley Irwin’s return to the CWHL shall find her with a new club. Acquired from the Montreal Stars for future considerations, Haley Irwin heads off to the Calgary Inferno, the CWHL’s most western-based franchise.

This marks the third marquee acquisition for the Inferno this off-season. The first involved Jocelyne Larocque being sent to Brampton in exchange for forward Bailey Bram. In addition, the club signed Rebecca Johnston (one of Irwin’s teammates in Sochi) as a free agent. As Irwin and Johnston played with Bram at the 2012 and 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships, the three are very familiar with Calgary, as it is also the national headquarters for the national women’s team.

Of note, the Calgary Inferno becomes the third CWHL team to obtain Irwin’s playing rights. Selected in the first round by the Brampton Thunder in the historic 2012 CWHL Draft, she would join the Montreal Stars in the preseason. During that rookie campaign of 2012-13, Irwin would accumulate 21 points in 20 games played.

Her best performances included a four point output on the road against Team Alberta (now known as the Inferno) on February 10, 2013, including two goals and two assists. Her first career CWHL hat trick would be scored on March 2, 2013, as part of a 6-2 home victory against the Toronto Furies. The season would finish with Irwin appearing in the Clarkson Cup finals.

For the Stars, it could not have been an easy decision to part ways with Irwin. Last season, the franchise lost Carolyne Prevost to free agency, and she would help lead the Toronto Furies to the Clarkson Cup. Should history repeat itself with Irwin, it would be a devastating outcome for a franchise eagerly attempting to capture its fourth title.

The one consolation may be the fact that the franchise has blueline sensation Lauriane Rougeau suiting up for the Stars. Having played with Irwin at Sochi, Rougeau will be expected to anchor the defense for years to come. Complemented by bright, young talent at the forward position such as Sophie Brault, Fannie Desforges, Kim Deschenes and Vanessa Gagnon, the Stars may have a gem to replace the offensive firepower that Irwin brought to the bleu, blanc et rouge. Of note, both teams shall face off against each other on October 24, 2014, the home opener for the Inferno.

As the Inferno look to build on the momentum of their first postseason appearance in 2014, the addition of Irwin only improves their chances of competing for the Clarkson Cup title. Should it happen, Irwin will become the newest member of the Triple Gold Club for Women, which recognizes players that have earned Olympic Gold, IIHF World Gold and the Clarkson Cup. In addition, she won the gold medal at the 2003 Canada Winter Games, playing alongside Meghan Agosta, who was also a teammate on the Stars.

Becoming the second high profile player from Canada’s national program to join the Inferno’s new-look offense, Irwin’s experience adds a feeling of confidence to the ambitious Inferno. A former captain at the NCAA level with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, she brings the maturity and leadership necessary to bring the Inferno’s offense to the next level. Her first test shall come on October 18, as the Inferno challenge the defending Clarkson Cup champion Toronto Furies.