Seen from a distance, it might have seemed inevitable that the Calgary Inferno would win the Clarkson Cup this season. A league-high nine of their players are 2018 Olympians, and another four have played for their national team this year. They captured the Chairman's Trophy as regular season champions with just five losses to their name, and won four of six prior meetings with Les Canadiennes.
But no matter the depth of talent on the roster, building a championship team takes work.
"Unreal," Kacey Bellamy answered upon entering the post-game scrum, asked simply how it felt to win. "I think we had a really good year as a team. We faced a lot of adversity."
That adversity, it's obvious, has mostly been behind the scenes. There were no major, long-term injuries. Looking at their record, at their performances on the ice, or at the score in the final, you wouldn't even know they've struggled. The key to their success, they've said, has been in playing for each other, and that was the case again on Sunday.
Calgary was strong from the jump and opened the scoring eight minutes in, when Zoe Hickel redirected a point shot from Katelyn Gosling. Halli Krzyzaniak doubled the advantage exactly five minutes later with a point shot of her own through traffic, and Montreal -- which had come out remarkably flat -- was left trying to stay afloat for the remainder of the period.
"It's tough to beat a team like Calgary when you don't play for 20 minutes," acknowledged associate head coach Caroline Ouellette. "In the second and the third we created a lot of chances, it's like we gained our confidence back, so that was my question to them: Why were we not on our toes? Why were we not confident? We felt prepared for this moment, but for some reason we weren't ready to attack it and seize the opportunity. It's a great team; we gave them too much time, too much space, too much respect, and in the end it made the difference."
Early in the second, Sarah Lefort passed the puck from the end boards to Ann-Sophie Bettez, who received it at the hash marks, spun around, and sent a backhand shot through Alex Rigsby's five-hole. Brianna Decker fired in a power-play goal from the circle at 12:22, but Les Canadiennes got back within one on a brilliant 5-on-3 set play. With just over two minutes left in the frame, Hilary Knight fed a no-look backwards between-the-legs pass through the crease to Bettez, who buried it for her second of the period.
Montreal seemed to have seized the momentum and tied things up just 31 seconds into the third when Jill Saulnier tapped the puck into the wide-open side of the net, but it was waved off for goalie interference after Bellamy had knocked Knight down onto Rigsby. Zoe Hickel completed a back-and-forth passing play through the slot with Rebecca Johnston to make it 4-2 at 6:24, and Johnston steered in an empty-netter to seal the result.
Much of the narrative around the game centred on the absence of Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who was dressed on the bench but unable to play following a knee injury suffered exactly one month earlier. It would certainly have been a different contest with her healthy, but Les Canadiennes pulled off impressive wins without her in the semi-finals and had the potential to do the same again.
"Hockey's a team game, and I thought our team was probably the stronger team tonight," summed up Inferno centre Brianne Jenner. "They gave us a good fight, but I'm pretty proud of what we did up and down our line-up."
Jenner was visibly emotional as she lifted the Cup in celebration.
"This is what you work for in the offseason and all year, and it felt pretty special. Pretty emotional getting it passed to me from my roommate, one of my best friends, Blayre Turnbull -- it meant a lot to me. And just seeing the girls that make up the heart of our team and how happy they were today. We've got a lot of talent, but we've also got lots of players that are behind the scenes doing lots of work every day. We've got some great CWHL career players that are the heartbeat of this team, so it meant a lot to share it with them."
Some players had mentioned the bond this Inferno team has, but that's been an active effort, too.
"You know, it's funny you say that," responded Decker when it was brought up. "I think that we, all season, were battling through... I think the coaching change had a little bit of a hiccup with us, but we battled through together and we stuck together as a team, and that's what showed tonight. You look at all the players that we had on this team, we had a lot of experience, and that carried us through the championship."
Experience, professionalism, and leadership were words we heard a lot of on Sunday. Beyond those who have worn letters internationally or in university, there are three players on the roster who have captained this very club -- one of Shannon Miller's last moves before splitting with the Inferno was renaming the official leadership group.
"I think we, as a team, just bought in and knew that there's nothing that we can do about what has happened," said Johnston, the current captain, of how they rallied from a difficult situation. "So let's just stick together as a team, buy into the systems, and believe in each other, believe in the coaching staff that we have, and believe in the talent that we have. We have such a talented team, so if we just did that, we'd be successful, and I think we've done that this year."
Done it well enough to become Clarkson Cup Champions, and earn one last celebration together before making their separate ways back to Calgary, or home, or to training camp before Worlds.
Decker has won an awful lot of championships, and she says there's one thing that ties all those journeys together.
"I think just the people I'm surrounded by every time. I look at all the teams I've been on, I've been on a lot of great teams and a lot of great players surrounded my play as well. I think I thrive off that pressure, I thrive off these games. It's fun to be out there and compete in the top championship games every season, and you've just got to build and work on it every single year."
(Photo credit: Chris Tanouye/CWHL)