Three games in three days against the top team in the league. That's what the Boston Blades were faced with this weekend, with a back-to-back-to-back series scheduled against the Calgary Inferno. Scheduling is tough on the Inferno, who are the only team in the CWHL based out west. Packing three games into a weekend is par for the course. Last season, the Inferno were average at best in the regular season and failed to win a single playoff game during the Clarkson Cup tournament. This season, they're a powerhouse early on, and after seeing them play, it's easy to see why.
GAME 1 RECAP: INFERNO 8 BLADES 3
The first game of the series took place Friday night at the Allied Veterans Rink in Everett, MA (one of the coldest rinks I've ever been to). The Blades struck early when Bray Ketchum got her first of the season, crashing the net around Delayne Brian and pouncing on a rebound. The Inferno struck back quickly, however, hemming the Blades into their own zone. Sarah Davis finally found the target after some valiant shot-blocking efforts by the Blades. Brittany Ott let that one in and struggled to find her groove the rest of the evening. Towards the end of the first period, with the game tied, Hilary Knight (now wearing the captain's C for the Blades) got a clean breakaway on Brian who came out to challenge the shot and made a brilliant save. The Blades would not have a chance to take the lead for the rest of the game.
Rebecca Johnston, easily the Inferno's most dangerous offensive player over the weekend, instead gave Calgary the lead following another sparkling save by Brian on Kelli Stack early in the second period. The Inferno increased their lead to 3-1 on a power play goal shortly thereafter.
Down 3-1, the Blades didn't hang back in the second period, testing Brian frequently, but she mad every necessary save. As the period went on, the Inferno really tightened up in the neutral zone, making zone entries hard for the Blades. Llanes got in tight on Brian, however, and was able to tap in another rebound to put the Blades within one goal. Second chances were key to beating Brian, and the Inferno largely did a good job preventing them.
The wheels really came off, though, when the Blades got a power play and quickly allowed a shorthanded breakaway goal to Jessica Campbell. Entering this game, the Blades were the least penalized team in the league, and Calgary the second-most penalized. Unfortunately, even with several back-to-back power play chances in the second period, the Blades only had a shorthanded goal allowed to show for their special teams.
Early in the third, the Inferno made it 5-2, and then 6-2 on a power play goal. Johnston and Jessica Wong made every advantage Calgary had over the weekend look deadly. Corinne Buie was able to cut the lead to 6-3, but Calgary would score two more goals before the horn, both on busy plays in front of Brittany Ott, who wasn't getting much help in front. Danielle Stone and Jenna Cunningham would get the goals. The Blades got a late power play when Kelsey Webster went off for tripping, but couldn't salvage much in the loss. 8-3 would be the final score.
GAME 2 RECAP: INFERNO 2 BLADES 4
Back at the Clark Athletic Center just 24 hours later, the Blades had to respond to Calgary's statement game. Both teams switched goaltenders, the Blades going with Genevieve Lacasse and the Inferno with Camille Trautman. Yet again, the Blades got an early goal, this time from Monique Lamoureux, who was able to steal the puck and skate in close for a goal on Trautman. "I kind of picked it off her stick, then went around one player, and the goalie was down on the shot," Lamoureux said, who went high on Trautman.
Calgary was able to tie it up on a similar play by Danielle Stone, who ended up all alone in the left circle and was able to snap one quickly past Lacasse. The Blades took the lead shortly thereafter when Tara Watchorn took the puck in deep from the point and created havoc around Trautman's crease. Rachel Llanes tapped it home to make it 2-1.
At the very end of the period, the Blades finally broke through on the power play. Jill Dempsey got hauled down by Jenna Cunningham, and Haley Irwin went for cross-checking at 19:53, creating a 5-on-3 advantage for the Blades. They did score from a scramble in front of the net, but it needed to be determined whether the puck crossed the line before the buzzer. The goal did stand after some lengthy discussion, and was eventually credited to Kelli Stack. One second was placed on the clock and the puck dropped one more time before the Blades took their 3-1 lead to the locker room, having gotten 17 shots in the first period alone.
The second period was scoreless, and the Blades took the same lead to the locker room after two. Both Lacasse and Trautman made a series of tough saves in the second, which was dominated by special teams, as the Blades and Inferno traded power play chances.
Calgary opened the third period by taking two more penalties in quick succession, but the Blades were unsuccessful on the two back to back chances which included a brief 5-on-3. Both goaltenders endured a flurry of shots, but the score stayed the same until an Inferno power play with just four minutes to go. Calgary crashed the net around Lacasse and a goal was credited to Cunningham, but not without some lengthy discussion. Lacasse described the play after the game: "It was under my pad the whole time, and she put my pad and the puck in the net, and the ref called it in. It's kinda tough when you see it yourself and you know it shouldn't count and then they count it. It's pretty frustrating, but you've just gotta get your head back in the game. There's still two minutes left."
Lacasse and her teammates worked hard to kill the clock, with Kelly Cooke and Tara Watchorn in particular eating time along the boards and at the blueline. Knight would seal the win at 19:07 with an empty netter, and the Blades would win by a final score of 4 to 2.
"I think the shots were fairly even last night, but it was just one of those nights where every single opportunity they had they scored, and we just couldn't buy a goal if we wanted to," said Monique Lamoureux after Saturday's game. "And I think it shows a lot about our character to come back after a loss like that and win tonight."
GAME 3 RECAP: INFERNO 2 BLADES 3 (OT)
Sunday's matinee was the final test of character for the Blades this weekend in what proved to be a physical matchup. Both teams brought lots of energy to the rink trying to come out on top in the three-game series. Calgary went back to Delayne Brian in net, while Boston started Lacasse again.
The Inferno would get the first goal this time, from Irwin on the power play with Casey Pickett in the box for Boston on a delay of game penalty. However, that was Calgary's only real quality chance of the period, as the Blades had done a superb job insulating Lacasse at even strength.
In the second period, the Blades would tie it up, and then manage to take the lead. Dempsey was able to outskate several Calgary defenders to enter the zone and feed a pass to Knight, who buried it behind Brian. Just a few seconds later, Danielle Stone went to the box for tripping Jill Dempsey in front of the net. The Blades were able to capitalize on the power play, as Blake Bolden and Kacey Bellamy played catch at the points before Bolden was able to rocket a shot towards the net, which deflected off a Calgary player's stick and in.
The Blades had a few chances to increase their lead, but the Inferno had just as many quality chances to tie it, including a shot that got behind Lacasse but found her left goal post instead of going in and bounced out of harm's way.
The physical tone of the game was kicked up a notch in the third period. The physicality of women's hockey is certainly a different tempo than what you might be used to seeing in the NHL, but it is no less intense. The Blades' defense in particular was stout all game, with Watchorn, Fratkin, and Bolden all standing up to deliver checks on Calgary forwards (some of which ended up being penalties).
As time got shorter, the Inferno came harder. Lacasse froze the puck on multiple occasions and also managed to get a stick on a puck that was headed for a wide open net. Hilary Knight created the Blades' best chance of the period by stealing the puck at the Calgary blueline and feeding Dempsey, but Brian made the save. With just 3 minutes to go, a holding penalty was assessed to Jenny Potter, and a mere 17 seconds into that penalty, Blake Bolden went off for body checking, giving the Inferno an extended 5 on 3. They also pulled Brian, creating a 6 on 3 advantage.
Lacasse gave up a big rebound after going down to make a save, and outnumbered 2 to 1, no one was able to pick up Irwin, who netted her second of the night going top shelf to tie the game 2-2. Calgary still had a minute of power play time remaining but was unable to take the lead before the horn.
In overtime, Rebecca Johnston was extremely dangerous early on, getting one shot on net from behind her back and another from all alone in the left circle, but Lacasse made the necessary saves. Both teams were pretty stingy throughout the OT--in fact, the Blades only got one shot on net, but it ended up being the one that counted.
With just 30 seconds to go, Knight got behind the Inferno on a change, drawing a holding penalty on Danielle Stone. But that became a moot point as Knight managed to find a seam underneath Brian to end the game with the Blades on top, 3-2.
"They're kinda shifty, so you've gotta be aware and try to stay on your feet and read the play," said Blake Bolden after the game of Calgary's speedy forwards.
But Knight almost didn't know she had a breakaway on her game-winning play. "I have no idea who I skated around. I didn't know I was on a breakaway until one of my teammates yelled at me GO! Like okay, I really have to bust hard here," she said. "We had a solid team effort so it was a good game to be a part of." While the Inferno's 8-3 blowout was a more lopsided affair, the Blades' ability to skate with them after the fact earned them two hard-fought wins.
NOTES AND UPDATES
Of note this weekend was Jenny Potter taking the ice with the Blades, frequently deployed on Sunday in a line with Knight and Smelker. Both Potter and Smelker are playing their first season with the Blades after being selected in the 2014 CWHL Draft. Potter (drafted 4th overall), however, is a 35-year-old veteran with four Olympic medals with Team USA, currently the head coach of women's ice hockey at Trinity College. Smelker (22, drafted in the 10th round of the draft), is a recent graduate of RPI in her first professional season with the Blades. The two played well together with Knight; Potter's speed and knack for creative passes combines well with Knight's power forward style and Smelker's hard work along the boards and in the slot. Kelli Stack also returned to the Blades this weekend, playing her first two games of the season and netting a goal and an assist in Saturday's win.
The CWHL regular season action returns on December 20th, with the Blades visiting Toronto for a weekend series in their first road games since October. In the meantime, the All-Star Game will take place at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto this coming Saturday, December 13. The All-Star Game will be televised on Sportsnet and consist of one period of skills competition followed by two 20-minute hockey periods. Vote for your captains here! Currently, Charline Labonté and Genevieve Lacasse are leading the vote.
Going into the All-Star break, the Blades have improved to 6-3-1 on the season, good for second in the standings behind Calgary with a game in hand. The Blades' next home game isn't until January 24, so I'm not sure when my live coverage will resume, but I'll definitely be at the rink for that one. Thanks for following my coverage so far this season, and don't miss the All-Star Game this weekend!