CWHL Takeaways: Inferno finding ways to win without star Decker

Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford explains what it is like to take in a CWHL game in China.

MARKHAM, Ont. — Calgary forward Brianne Jenner will be the first to admit “it wasn’t our prettiest weekend,” but her league-leading Inferno are headed back home with four points in the bank.

On Sunday, the Inferno earned their second straight win over the defending Clarkson Cup champions from Markham, a 5-4 victory on the heels of an overtime win a day earlier. With the back-to-back victories, Calgary now has a one-point lead on Montreal in the CWHL standings, just a couple weeks before the all-star break.

Here are five things we learned from Sunday’s tilt:

Down but not out

Markham exploded out of the gate, cashing in on a pair of power-plays in the first to take a 2-0 lead into the second period. But Calgary forward Rebecca Johnston says there was zero panic in that Inferno dressing room.

“We got shots on net, really focused on what we needed to do and started putting it in the back of the net,” she says, making it sound oh so simple. Johnston herself found the back of the net once for Calgary, and added a helper. The Inferno captain is now third overall in the CWHL, with 28 points in 18 games, good for 1.56PPG.

Jenner, who had two goals in the winning effort, says this team is playing with a lot of confidence. “I don’t think there was a doubt in our dressing room that we had the weapons and the ability to come back. When we’re firing on all cylinders, we’re tough to play against.”

All-stars on display

There were a boat load of players in this game who’ll be appearing in the CWHL All-Star game on Sunday, Jan. 20 at 1:30 p.m. ET at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto (the game is making its return after a hiatus last year because of the Olympics).

Jenner is one of nine Inferno players who’s been named an all-star, and her team is sending the most representatives of any in the league. “Personally, I don’t look forward to it more than a regular season game,” she admits. “It’s an honour when you’re there and it’s a fun celebration, but right now my focus is on the regular season games we have coming up.”

Fair enough, but this all-star game will be a great showcase. On Calgary alone, six of the Inferno’s all-stars won Olympic medals last year: Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy and goalie Alex Rigsby all won gold with Team USA, while Jenner, Johnston, Blayre Turnbull and Brigitte Laquette won silver with Canada.

Megan Bozek’s cannon

Thunder defenceman Megan Bozek didn’t come away with a win Sunday, but she was one of Markham’s strongest players, and factored in on both of her team’s early goals. Bozek had an assist on the first, and not too long after, she wired one from the point on the power play to make it 2-0, Markham.

Bozek, who’s from Illinois, won a silver medal at the 2014 Olympics with the American national team, but was a late cut from the team in 2017. She’s one of seven Thunder players who’ll be appearing in the upcoming all-star game, and it’ll be her second appearance.

Missing in action: Brianna Decker

Calgary scored five goals on Sunday, and without one of its biggest stars in the lineup. Decker, who hails from Wisconsin and is playing her first season in the CWHL and is on the coaching staff for Team USA’s U-18 women. She’ll be missing Calgary’s next four games while she’s in Japan for the tournament, which wraps up with the gold medal final on Sunday, Jan. 13.

Johnston is usually her linemate: “Sad, and we’re missing her,” she says. “Obviously, it hurts,” Jenner adds, “but we have a lot of depth. We have the ability to move Turnbull to center, she’s a natural centre…we’re lucky in the options that we have.”

In other words, even without Decker — she has 17 points in 16 games — the Inferno are finding ways to win.

In action: The commissioner

There was a Hockey Hall of Famer in the crowd on Sunday: CWHL Commissioner Jayna Hefford. The four-time Olympic gold medallist not only runs the league, but she’s also the Thunder’s all-time scoring leader, with a ridiculous 234 points in 128 games (130 goals, 104 assists).

During the game, the in-arena announcer had a bunch of Hefford-related trivia for little hockey players in the crowd, and they knew their Hefford facts. Overheard, from a little girl in the crowd who spotted Hefford in the stands: “She’s in the Hall of Fame!”

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