With the CWHL welcoming two expansion teams from China into the fold, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays, there is a unique tinge of irony in the fact that both won their first-ever games on the same night.
Having played the weekend prior in their North American debut against the Markham Thunder, the Red Star suffered a two-game sweep. Meanwhile, the October 28-29 series against the Toronto Furies would signify the Vanke Rays debut in North America. During the same weekend, the Red Star made the trek westward, challenging the Calgary Inferno.
As October 28, 2017 became a significant date in the CWHLs history, Max Bell Arena would serve as the backdrop for the Red Stars victory. With Noora Raty making her third consecutive start for the Red Star, she challenged Lindsey Post, a winner of the UPSORTS Golden Path Trophy in her senior season with the Alberta Pandas last spring, who was appearing in her first-ever CWHL game.
Perhaps the most unique subplot of the game involved the fact that Jessica Wong was returning to her pro hockey roots. As the first-ever visible minority taken with the first overall pick in the history of the professional womens hockey draft, she spent a handful of seasons with the Inferno before joining the Red Star as a free agent.
In spite of a total of 23 shots in the first period, neither team managed to score, as Raty and Post contributed to an early defensive stalemate. The offensive floodgates would burst in the second stanza, as goals by Shiann Darkangelo, Kelli Stack and Annina Rajahuta, who played with Raty on the Finnish national team, provided the Red Star with a quick 3-0 advantage. On Darkangelos goal, Chinese national team players Hongxin Yan and Zhixin Lu gained the assists.
Before the period would expire, the international flavor would continue as Iya Gavrilova, one of the premier scorers for Russias national team scored the Infernos first goal of the game. Gaining the assist was star rookie Sophie Shirley, whose hockey resume includes several stints with Canadas U18 national team.
The third period would see the Inferno bounce back as Elana Lovell, the 2016 CWHL Rookie of the Year, and Rhianna Kurio, who captured a bronze medal with Team Canada at the 2017 ISBHF Worlds, both scored. Gavrilova and Shirley would add their second points of the game with assists on Lovells goal, while 18 year old rookie Kennedy Brown gained her first career point in CWHL play by assisting on Kurios game-tying goal.
With the Red Star unable to reclaim the lead, overtime would be required to determine a winner. In spite of Stephanie Anderson being sent to the penalty box for body checking, Rajahuta managed to score a short-handed goal, unassisted, discouraging the Infernos attempts for victory, while emerging with First Star of the Game honors. Teammate Kelli Stack would be named the Third Star, while Inferno rookie blueliner Kelly Murray obtained Second Star honors.
Toronto’s MasterCard Centre would play host to the Vanke Rays, as the Rays roster boasted seven Canadians on its roster, including Hanna Bunton, Patty Kazmaier Award runner-up Cayley Mercer, All-America nod Brooke Webster plus goaltending sensation Elaine Chuli. Gaining the start for the Rays, Chuli would oppose Furies goaltender Sonja van der Bliek, who was named the CWHL’s first Goaltender of the Week for 2017-18.
As the first ten minutes of the period saw a pair of penalties, Bunton called for Cross Checking, while Furies competitor Michelle Saunders would be called for the same infraction at the 9:40 mark, the goaltending would frustrate both offenses. In a period that would see the Rays outshoot the Furies by a convincing 12-5 mark, their persistence would pay off as Hanna Bunton provided the Rays with the game’s first lead.
Scoring the first goal in franchise history, Bunton’s place in franchise history included Mercer gaining the assist. Taking into account that both were rivals in collegiate play in the ECAC Conference, with Bunton starring for the Cornell Big Red, while Mercer enjoyed an NCAA Frozen Four title with the Clarkson Golden Knights, the opportunity for these titanic talents to call each other teammates shall pay positive dividends for the Rays.
The offensive synergy between Bunton and Mercer continued in the second period with a unique twist of coincidence. Of note, Mercer would score her first career goal at the 2:38 mark, with Bunton gaining the assist.
Almost 12 minutes following Mercer’s goal, Webster, who was an offensive catalyst with the ECAC’s St. Lawrence Skating Saints, would record her first career CWHL goal, which was also the first short-handed goal in franchise history. Ashley Brykaliuk would gain her first career point in the Rays colors by logging the assist. Following two periods of play, the Rays showed van der Bliek with 29 shots, while the offensively starved Furies struggled with 11 shots.
In the third period, the Furies would regroup, challenging Chuli with 12 shots, more than their cumulative total of the first two periods. While the Rays managed a respectable 10 shots against van der Bliek, Chuli would repeatedly deny the Furies, recording a 3-0 shutout in her CWHL debut.
Gaining the start in the Rays second game against the Furies on October 29, Chuli would stop 28 of 31 shots, although the blue and white capitalized on two power play opportunities in a 3-2 win. Bunton would record the Rays first-ever power play goal in the second period, as the score was tied 1-1 after two periods. Furies goals by Jenna Dingeldein, who won the Isobel Cup in 2017 with Buffalo, and Cassidy Delaney scored in the third. In spite of Mercer scoring with less than two minutes remaining, which also included the Rays opting for an extra attacker with an open net, the Rays were unable to tie the score, as Furies co-founder Sami Jo Small became the oldest goaltender to win a CWHL regular season game, at 41 years, seven months and four days young.