Boston Pride defeat Buffalo Beauts in dramatic home opener

Last Saturday, the Boston Pride opened at home with their third game into the season against the Buffalo Beauts. I didn’t know what to expect from the Beauts, who’ve had substantial roster movement over the offseason, although I knew I’d see a strong showing from the Pride, who remain undefeated this season thus far. That said, I definitely didn’t expect a thrilling progression from a third-period tie to OT to shootout to sudden-death shoot out. Saturday’s game was fast and gripping despite remaining scoreless until the second period.

Before puck drop, team staff unfurled banners that will hang in the rafters at Warrior–one celebrating the Pride as 2015-2016 regular season champions, another celebrating their Isobel cup win, and a third honoring injured teammate Denna Laing that bore her number on the Pride, “24.” Laing appeared on the ice in a new Pride jersey to pose for a photo with her teammates. For the first faceoff and puck drop, Laing joined the other five members of the 2015-2016 roster who have not rejoined the Pride this season: Corinne Buie (in her new Beauts jersey), Kelly Cooke, Kelsie Fralick, Cherie Hendrickson, and Casey Pickett (who has has returned to the Boston Blades). Harvard alum Dempsey acknowledged missing the Pride’s former home, but said of Warrior, “I”I feel like the crowd brought the energy tonight… it’s nice to feel like the place is packed. It’s a great sheet of ice.” Amanda Pelkey, who works at Ristuccia, the Bruins’ former practice rink, was excited to be at Warrior, too, although she’d like it if the Pride could also practice at Ristuccia.

Then Buie skated off to join her new teammates, the rugs were rolled up, and the game was on. The Pride (a.k.a Team USA) are a tight unit who have well-established strategies and plays, something that showed in their strong preseason showing against Team Russia, who many of the Pride played against at the IIHF World Women’s Championship earlier this year. This tactical approach works effectively against known opponents like Russia, this iteration of the Beauts proved a challenge for the Pride to surmount. While the Pride plays a slightly conservative defensive system, the Beauts’ defensive movements seemed a little more fluid, especially when it came to generating traffic in their own zone. The game was characterized by constant turnover and end-to-end movement. Despite leveling 42 shots on goal to the Beauts’ 17, the Pride could only match them in goals during regulation time. Some of the Beauts’ defensive strength was Beauts goaltender Brianne McLaughlin’s outstanding performance, but their ability to generate plays on the fly stymied the Pride’s usual tactics. Pride goaltender Ott agreed, saying of their new lineup, “You don’t always know what to expect of their players.”

Jordan Smelker was the Pride player who scored that second period goal, crediting linemates Brianna Decker and Zoe Hickel for their help. “They’ve got a great defensive lineup, they have lots of national team players [Megan Bozek, Emily Pfalzer, and McLaughlin],” she said of facing off against the Beauts. “We just knew that we had to keep on them and go hard on the forecheck but not too hard, just stay on them and tire them out.” Close to the end of the third period, Shiann Darkangelo scored the Beauts’ only goal, assisted by Buie and Sarah Casorso. Pride goaltender Brittany Ott said of her strategy for starting a new season against a fresh crop of players, “You have to be crisp at all times. I just tried to play simple and remain focused on my own game.”

Darkangelo’s goal tied the game, sending the Pride and the Beauts into 5 minutes of four-vs-four, scoreless OT–then an equally scoreless shootout–and finally a sudden-death shootout round. Amanda Pelkey ultimately netted the winning shoutout goal for the Pride. “You kinda watch to see how she moves with other people,” she said. “I was talking to Zoe and I was like, ‘Honestly, I think we should just go five-hole.’ Like, for me, it’s either I go five-hole, get the goalie moving and then shoot five-hole, or go deep back-end, but there was too much snow to do that and a couple girls already tried. So I was like, ‘oh, what the heck.'” Well, that was a heck of a shot.

Coach Bobby Jay had only praise for the Pride’s performance. Undefeated in the preseason, the Boston have continued their winning streak with three regular season wins in eight days. That lead will certainly be challenged as the largely fresh lineups of the other three teams in the league develop. Ott said, “Towards of the season playing these teams a bunch of times you kind of get to learn a little bit about these players and their tendencies.” It’ll be interesting to see how the Beauts fare in future matches against the Pride as the Beauts’ chemistry and systems develop and the Pride grow more informed.

Next up for Warrior Ice Arena (and Watch This Hockey): tonight, the Pride take on New York.

Boston Blades surge back with 9-4 win over New England Eagles

Meghan Grieves just after shooting and scoring on the New England Eagles' goal.
Blades forward Meghan Grieves just after scoring on the New England Eagles.

Saturday night, the 2016-2017 Boston Blades met the New England Eagles in a preseason outing at The Edge in Bedford, MA. The stands were fuller than most of the Blades games I attended last year, thanks in part to a profusion of Eagles fans; those arriving early were treated to the end of an East Coast Wizards boys’ game. While my visit to the Blades’ selection camp last month had left me hopeful, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the new roster or their opponents. I definitely wasn’t expecting such a dramatic victory for the Blades, let alone one that gave me as many questions as answers.

First, let’s address their opponents. The New England Eagles are a local veteran’s team that’s part of the Skate for the 22 Foundation. This Saturday’s game against the Blades was the first game for the Eagles as part of the foundation’s hockey program. Considering their background and freshness as a team, the Eagles played an incredible game against the Blades. They scored the first goal and matched the Blades goal-for-goal for the first period. The Eagles had a strong offensive presence and a lot of reach on the Blades working in their favor, but their energy flagged over the course of the game. This was not an easy 9-4 contest. The Eagles made the Blades work for their win.

That win. Where to start? Let’s begin with the forwards, where Boston has made the biggest gains. The team’s newcomers scored five of those nine goals, with one each for BC alums Meghan Grieves and Kate Leary, BU’s Dakota Woodworth and Kayla Tutino, and UConn’s Margaret Zimmer. Their play was fast and dynamic, long passes easily connecting through traffic, with more backhanded passing than I saw last year. “Very strong forwards,” Tutino said of her linemates, “Lots of speed and they’re strong on their sticks, so they made some great passes today.” While the 2015-2016 Blades generally relied on a chip-and-chase strategy to move the puck into the offensive zone, these players and their linemates alike confidently carried the puck across both blue lines toward the Eagles’ goal. Even at close quarters with Eagles players, who relied on their long reach as well as generating traffic near their goal, the Blades continually generated scoring opportunities and kept the play in their Eagles’ zone.

Newcomers weren’t the only forwards who shone in this game. Last year, the Blades had few goals and few consistent scorers. Megan Myers, a returning 2014-2015 player, and Megan Shea led the team with four and three goals respectively; Captain Tara Watchorn (on defense), alternate captain Kristina Brown, and Elizabeth Tremblay each scored two. Against the Eagles on Saturday, Brown scored as many goals in one game as she did in the entirety of the 2015-2016 season. Myers and returning 2014-2015 player Casey Pickett scored one goal each. After the game, Brown was glowing. “Everyone’s really starting to gel together off the ice and it was awesome to see it come together on the ice,” she said. “We obviously always have room for improvement and cleaning some stuff up, but it’s really exciting to get to our next game in Toronto.” With teammates who are truly peers on the ice, these returning players are getting the opportunity to showcase their strengths and contribute even more to the team.

Speaking of returning players, my award for Most Improved must go to Clara St. Germain, who held her own on the same line with Watchorn last night. “Clara is one of the hardest workers out there,” said assistant coach Mike Diamantopoulos. Coach Brian McCloskey elaborated, “She’s very smart, very coachable. She did improve a lot last year, I was impressed. You can always find a place for a player like her: even though she might have the size and the skating ability of some other players, she makes up for it by being really intelligent and knowing her limitations.” The Blades’ defense spent less time protecting their goal than preventing turnover—the chippy play of last year was replaced by tight, controlled forward play supported by the defense. Watchorn and returning player Dru Burns continue to be key pieces for the Blades, each assisting on a goal of Brown’s. I was less impressed by newcomer Cassandra Opela, who seemed to have trouble shooting in tight quarters and through traffic.

Finally, there are the Blades’ two new goaltenders: Lauren Dahm, who started for the Blades, and Shelley Payne, who came in during the second period. While Dahm allowed three goals and Payne only one, it’s difficult to compare their performances on that basis alone—Dahm was facing much more shot pressure from the Eagles, while the Blades kept the Eagles penned in their own zone for most of Payne’s time in net. That said, Dahm appeared nervous and unsteady on her feet: the first goal she allowed came when she was too far out from the net to block the shot, the second and third when she fell forward. Payne seemed more comfortable on the ice, steady on her feet and easily moving from standing to butterfly position; the final goal of the game went in right behind her shoulder. “Both played solid,” said Diamantopoulos. “It’s tough for them, too, playing against guys and the way they can shoot—it’s a lot different from what they face normally.”

The lineup for Saturday’s game included some practice players and does not fully reflect the final roster, which GM Krista Patronick will share this week: those players will face the Furies in Toronto on October 15 and 16 as the Blades begin their season on the road. Still, the change in energy and direction from last season is clear. Tutino and Leary were cheerful after their first professional game, eager to talk about how much fun they were having. “This is a great group of girls,” said Tutino; “It was a great game to play, and obviously fun to win,” said Leary. Meanwhile, captain Watchorn was beaming. “It’s exciting this year,” she said. “It’s going to be good. This is great.” And a hard-won great it is, too.

Big win on home ice: the Boston Pride sink their teeth into Team Russia

Saturday night, the Boston Pride met the Russian national team for the Pride’s second pre-season outing and the first of Team Russia’s series against the NWHL. After a close game against Boston College on Thursday night, the Pride returned to the ice to win a 5-1 victory over Russia. Yet this was no easy contest—the Pride pulled off a definitive win against a team that led in puck possession and shots on goal (24-18), and without co-captain Hilary Knight.

Captain Brianna Decker led the team in goals, scoring two at even strength. Like her fellow US national team members, she had spent the past week at a training camp at Warrior Arena. “Today was pretty tough, actually, ” she said. “Once we got our feet under us, we were moving the puck really well… my legs weren’t feeling good in the first period.” Any fatigue didn’t show on the ice. Meghan Duggan netted the first goal of the game in the first period, follow by goals from Decker, Alex Carpenter (on power play), and Kacey Bellamy, who scored right out of the penalty box.

Team Russia didn’t skate like they were two days off an international plane flight, either. They outshot the Pride 24-18, with 4 of those shots coming from former Connecticut Whale player Ekaterina Smolentseva. While they suffered in defense, Russia kept pace with the Pride offensively, which is rare to see from any of the Pride’s opponents. “Today I really noticed they read each other very well,” said Bellamy of the team’s offense. “They don’t have to necessarily look where they’re giving it. They can backhand across ice and their teammate will be there. Very deceptive with the puck, and they’re not going a million miles an hour, they’re just moving the puck exactly where they needed to. But it was good for us to see that kind of pressure and that kind of offense.” Notably absent from the Russian team were former New York Riveter Liudmila Belyakova and assistant captain Iya Gavrillova, who was selected in the third round of the 2016 CWHL draft by the Calgary Inferno.

Ultimately, the Pride’s defensive skill and solid netminding from Lauren Slebodnick and Brittany Ott (who split time in goal) proved decisive in the team’s first game—and first win—at their new home rink. “It’s an amazing facility, the ice is great,” said Carpenter. Duggan added, “It’s a fantastic facility. Obviously, the Bruins have welcomed us with open arms here. It’s state of the art. Locker rooms are great, ice surface is great, it’s beautiful.”

From what I saw on Saturday, these things are all true. Aesthetically, Warrior is certainly an upgrade from Harvard. However, the most notable change is seating capacity: the Bright-Landry seated approximately 3,000 people, whereas the Warrior Arena seats only 650. This will no doubt be a crunch for fans, but that may be an incentive for the NWHL—the fuller the stands, the more appealing games will be for TV and streaming deals. Even at this pre-season game, there were a few hundred spectators. Sold-out games are in the Pride’s future.

Boston Blades Selection Camp: “Bladies Are Back”

Morgan Grieves skates out in front of the net at Boston Blades Selection Camp
Boston College alum Morgan Grieves at the 2016-2017 Boston Blades Selection Camp

On September 15th, the second day of Selection Camp for the Boston Blades, the arena at UMass Boston was quiet. Players were already on the ice when I arrived at 8:45, demonstrating their skating skills before moving onto their stickhandling. Coach Brian McCloskey and Assistant Coach Mike Diamantopoulos (a new addition to the Blades staff) were on the ice, their eyes on the players; GM Krista Patronick watched from the stands. “Every time I watch this group skate, I just feel more and more optimistic about the season to come,” she said.

With a 1-23-0 record for 2015-2016, the bar for improvement is low. After their roster was decimated by the outflow of players from the Clarkson-Cup-winning 2014-2015 roster, the Boston Blades struggled to fill spaces at the start of the season. Patronick recruited heavily from Boston College, community ball hockey (Patronick is a goaltender), and former NCAA players looking to make a comeback to the game. While the team struggled on the ice, they flourished off of it. “Our team, how we connected was unbelievable,” says forward Erin Kickham, who joined the team last season after her graduation from BC. “That seems to be happening [now], and we’ve had two practices. That’s special. You can’t teach that.”

Another connection is evident on the ice, noted by defender Dru Burns: “One-touch passes, people are filling lanes, supporting people.” Two skates in, the 2016-2017 Blades prospects already look more coherent than the rostered players of last season. Both Patronick and Diamantopoulos expressed their excitement about influx of forwards from the 2016 CWHL draft in August. While the main roster for the team is 25 players, Patronick can protect up to 40: she expects that this will include most of the forwards.

More visible in the group of players on the ice Thursday was the new crop of goaltenders: a total of six were in attendance, taking up much of the sheet’s real estate. Patronick has since released Sarah Quigley and offered Amanda Fontaine a spot on the reserve roster. It will be difficult to replace Olympian Genevieve Lacasse, who logged 1345 minutes in 23 games last year and overtook the CWHL record (649) in just 15 of those games. Lacasse finished the Blades’ difficult season with a .904 SVP; in August, she was traded to Calgary. Those are big skates to fill. Lacasse took the vast majority of ice time, yielding only one game to back up goaltender Amanda Carridi; Patronick isn’t sure whether this year’s goaltenders will be have a similar dynamic or be more of a tandem duo. “We’re looking at all options right now,” she said, “But I think we’re in a good spot where we have to make those tough decisions.”

While the Blades are saying goodbye to Lacasse and forward Megan Shea, who played a big role last year, many players will be returning. On the ice Thursday, Carridi joined Burns and Kickham as well as Maggie DiMasi, Nicole Giannino, and both Clara and Sadie St. Germain. Absent were Blades captain Tara Watchorn, who was fulfilling her duties to Team Canada, and forward Megan Myers, who has already signed for this year. Another returning player was forward Casey Pickett, who played for the Blades prior to serving as a practice player for the Boston Pride last year. Patronick expects that she’ll play a big role this year. (Former Pride and Blades forward Kelly Cooke was also on the list of Selection Camp attendees, but not in attendance. Patronick says that she doesn’t expect Cooke to join the team, but she may referee some Blades games this year.)

Many of the new faces at the rink have ties to the returning Blades through Hockey East and Boston College. “A bunch of my old teammates played on the Blades and spoke very highly of it,” said forward Meghan Grieves, who graduated from BC this spring. “Kristina Brown and Dru Burns, as well as Melissa Bizzari, Kate Leary, and myself, we’re all playing again… It’s awesome to get to put on a new jersey with my old teammates.” Burns and fellow BC alum Kickham said they spent the summer recruiting former BC and Hockey East players; Diamantopoulos spoke highly of the players they brought in. “We got about six or seven girls out of Hockey East that I think are really going to add to the depth of our club that we didn’t have last year,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how we can fit them into our system.”

Another crucial piece of the puzzle (a metaphor used by Burns) is defender Kikuchi Sato, who was extended an offer by the Blades after Thursday’s skate. “Sato is really impressive, I have to say,” said Patronick. “Her skating ability is really awesome, she battles hard, you probably saw her going into the corner a little bit. She just doesn’t give up, which is something we love about her.” Sato returns the love, evidently: she shared news about joining the Blades last week on Twitter.

The Blades will debut their new lineup in Toronto on October 15 and take to the ice at home on October 29 at UMass Boston. (Most Blades games this season will be played at Walter Brown, their “home” arena, as well as UMass Boston.) Judging by what I saw at Thursday’s skate, they have a promising roster in the works for the 2016-2017 season. “Bladies are back!” Burns and Kickham said in unison at their end of our conversation. “We’re really excited for another year to get out there,” added Kickham. “We’re gonna win some games.”

NWHL Free Agent Camp: Beauts make a splash with Casorso signing, Muni as co-head coach

While thousands gathered at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center downtown to watch a select group of teens get chosen for a chance at their dream career, just next door, a score of women took to the ice at Harborcenter to earn their own shot at stardom — with one scoring a contract after the first full day.

The University of British Columbia’s Sarah Casorso came out of Saturday’s sessions with a one-year, $13,500 deal with the Buffalo Beauts after an impressive showing during skill drills and the Red vs. White scrimmage. The offensive-minded blueliner graduated from UBC in 2015 and had been playing overseas before trying her luck with the NWHL this offseason.

Casorso called the contract a “dream come true” in the media scrum Sunday afternoon.

“I came in not really knowing what to expect,” she said. “I’m a bit of a question mark in these parts of North America, so I’m really, really excited to be part of the organization and an ambassador for my community.”

The defender’s skating and puck movement should certainly boost a Beauts team that struggled, particularly early on, to produce and provide their goaltenders with some support. Brianne McLaughlin forged a solid .907 save percentage over 14 games, and on many nights was the saving grace for her team. Production-wise, the Beauts forced just over three goals per game, a number Seiling would like to improve over next season.

Casorso provides a good back-end presence and a willingness to hustle on the backcheck (she stopped at least one odd-man rush in Saturday’s scrimmage), but also has great hands and an aptitude for jumping into the play. As a member of the UBC Thunderbirds, she led the CIS’ Canada West in scoring amongst defenders with six goals and 13 assists for 19 points in 28 regular-season games, which shows she can score, but also make great plays.

Beauts head coach and general manager Ric Seiling said Casorso was “just the type of player we’re looking for,” speaking to not only her ability on the ice but the character she possesses as reasons for her signing.

“I think she’s going to be a great fit in the dressing room, and I think she’s going to be a great leader on the ice,” he said.

The Beauts took care of more than just their roster this weekend, also announcing the hiring of former NHLer Craig Muni as co-head coach. Muni and Seiling have an established relationship, according to the league’s press release, having coached their sons together in the past. Seiling cited Muni’s winning past (three Stanley Cups with Edmonton in the late 80s) as something that would help the Beauts excel.

Muni said he hoped the learning curve, jumping from men’s to women’s hockey, would be quick enough for him to make an immediate impact.

“I’m going to have to get to know the girls on our team, get to know their strengths, get to know their weaknesses, and start figuring out how we can improve their game,” he said. “If we improve their game as an individual, we can improve the team’s game as a whole, so hopefully we can do that… right away.”

Coaches and GMs from most of the league’s other teams were in attendance for Saturday’s session at Harborcenter. The camp had four sessions in total — one Friday night as a warmup skate, two on Saturday (one drill session, one scrimmage), and a scrimmage Sunday morning to allow one last look at the available talent.

Players of all walks attended, from those just out of college (Beauts draft pick Jenna Dingeldein) to those with a more colorful path into hockey (Team Colombia member Sandra Velasquez, who also plays men’s rec hockey in New York City). Four previous NWHLers — Buffalo’s Hayley Williams and Amanda Makela, and New York’s Sydney Kidd and Taylor Holze — also hit the ice to try their hand at a new contract.

Williams in particular seemed bound and determined to prove she deserved a spot in the league. Her drill work was good, but she shone even brighter during the scrimmages, displaying lots of speed and what looked to me like improved skating and puck control as well. She crashed the net on multiple opportunities, and although no goals came of them, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Perhaps the comfort of being on former home ice at Harborcenter was a factor; either way, Williams said she’s focused entirely on maintaining her place as an NWHLer, preferably with her old club.

“I have an absolute loyalty to Buffalo,” she said after Saturday morning’s session. “People have asked me if I got an offer somewhere else, would I go, and I can’t actually answer that question, but when the time arises, if that happens, then I’d have to think about that.”

For her part, Makela is just trying to make the most of the moment and find somewhere to play for next season. If that means this might just be a way for her to stay in shape for another league, she says, so be it.

“I haven’t really thought about it yet,” she said. “I mean, the CW [Canadian Women’s Hockey League] is always an option, overseas is always an option. There’s always, I guess, options to play hockey somewhere.”

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Q&A with the Buffalo Beauts’ Devon Skeats

This is part of a regular offseason feature on Watch This spotlighting each of the players on the Buffalo Beauts, who made a surprise run to the Isobel Cup Final in the NWHL’s first season. Check out our Q&As with Kelley Steadman and Brianne McLaughlin as well. We move next to forward Devon Skeats, who came flying out of the gate after missing a month and a half of the season due to visa issues (along with four other players). Skeats was nearly a point-per-game player in her first season (14 points in 15 regular season matches), and her speed and skill nicely balanced her line with Hailey Browne and Kourtney Kunichika. Here’s what she had to say looking back on her first NWHL season:

 

If you could pick one word to describe the Beauts’ first season, what would it be?

Memorable. I think we all had an incredible journey together this season. We were such a hard-working, never give up type of team and we accomplished a lot this season together. We had a rough start and faced a lot of adversity over the course of the year but once we came together as a team I felt like we were unstoppable. I’m so proud of my team for making it to the Isobel Cup finals it was definitely an experience we won’t forget.

 

It was a long wait for you to get onto the ice, especially considering you were one of the first players to sign and ended up being one of the last to experience her first game. But you ended up having a really solid year. What were some highlights for you personally?

I experienced many highlights during [my] season with the Beauts. A couple of my personal favorites were: when the fans voted me in to participate in the first ever NWHL All-Star Game, as well as beating the Connecticut Whale in the [playoffs] after going 0-6 in the regular season.

 

Back at the beginning of the year, there was a lot of talk about Buffalo as a hockey town and how hockey fans would embrace their new local team. What can you say about the relationship between the Beauts and their fans in their inaugural season?

I feel as if I can speak on behalf of the whole team in saying that we felt we had the best fans in the whole league. We would go out after our games in the lobby and talk to our fans and sign autographs for them — we certainly had a very interactive relationship with them. We are very appreciative of their support during the season.

 

Not only did you have a good year, but your entire line with Kourtney Kunichika and Hailey Browne was one of the strongest on the team. Looking back, what was it about playing with both of them that made you guys better as a unit?

I was really fortunate to be put on a line with both Kourt and Brownie. They are incredibly talented and hardworking players, so it was easy to build chemistry, and we’re all really good friends off the ice as well so that helped with the camaraderie on the ice.  

 

Going from fourth place to Isobel Cup runner-up is an impressive feat for the Beauts. What do you attribute the late-season and postseason success to? What are you proudest of your team for accomplishing in that playoff run?

I simply attribute it to our team coming together and playing as a whole. Throughout the season we possessed a relentless work ethic, [and] we carried that on over to our postseason play. Combining both that and playing with our full roster did a lot for us. I am so proud of my team [for] coming back after losing to the Whale in the opening game of playoffs and beating them in the next two to buy us a ticket to the Isobel Cup.

 

How did it feel to finally beat Connecticut, especially in such a clutch moment in the postseason? Also, what do you think you and your teammates can take away from your loss in the Cup Final to the Pride?

It felt incredible and so deserving. We had such an unlucky run against them in the regular season, losing in shootouts and OT with them. Our record with them did not reflect anything about the Beauts — we knew we could beat them, and we did just that when it mattered most. We are all really proud of ourselves about making it as far as we did and all we can do is take the defeat and use that as ammunition for the next season.

 

Moving ahead, what do you look forward to most in your second NWHL season (provided you come back to the Beauts)?

I really look forward to hopefully wearing a Beauts jersey again and representing such an incredible city in the 2016/2017 season, and to bring the Isobel Cup home to Buffalo.

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Q&A with Kelley Steadman of the Buffalo Beauts

 

This is part of a regular offseason feature on Watch This spotlighting each of the players on the Buffalo Beauts, who made a surprise run to the Isobel Cup Final in the NWHL’s first season. For the opening interview with Brianne McLaughlin, click here. Next up is Kelley Steadman, whose name graces a host of firsts for the franchise (including first goal scored) and finished her season leading the team in scoring and being in the top five in the league with 20 points in 10 games played, 13 of them being goals. The forward was able to answer a few questions looking back at her first season in the NWHL:

 

How do you describe your first season with the Beauts, both from a team perspective and from your own as a player? Looking back, what does being given the opportunity to be in the league as a practice player mean to you?

 

I don’t think I could have asked for a better first season with the Beauts, both from a team stand point and an individual stand point. The group of women in our locker room were resilient, tough, hardworking, and a great group to be around. We really gelled as a team which is why we saw such success especially toward the end of the year. Personally, I had the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. Regardless of the points and the personal success, I had a blast playing the game and that’s a testament to my teammates and all of the people that made this league possible. What people don’t understand is that we all have played this game for 20+ years, and before this year, when we were done playing college hockey, or for the National Team, it was just over. That was me last year. I never thought that I would play competitive hockey again, especially not among the best players in the world. Getting the chance to do that again, meant more than words can say. This league gives all of us something to continue to work for and it gives all of the young girls in the stands, something to look forward to and aspire to be a part of. No one ever thought women’s hockey would get here, and to see the success of the league in it’s first year is incredible.

 

You took on a huge role with the Beauts as the season progressed, becoming their go-to goal scorer. Did you expect to have that kind of impact with the team, and what’s it like to know you’re such a big part of the Beauts’ success?

 

I definitely didn’t expect to have such personal success when I signed my contract back in October. I had taken months off from playing competitive hockey, wasn’t really training for anything other than keeping my body healthy, and I wasn’t expecting to play again. Hockey is such a mental game, and I think the reason I was able to do so well was that I simply enjoyed playing every game. That, combined with playing with a talented group like my teammates, attributed to my personal success. The thing that I am most proud of this year had nothing to with how I did individually, but how hard our team battled throughout the season and how we exceeded everyone’s expectations. Being a part of that is what I will take away from this season.

 

An article on Today’s Slapshot back in January suggested the pace of play in the NWHL has been dictated this first season by more veteran players, rather than those just out of college. As a player who fits in that category, what do you think of that assessment? What can you say about your comfort level playing in this league (or rather, what more, since your stats definitely show you’re comfortable)?

 

There are so many talented players in this league, both veterans and just out of college. I think the great thing about veteran players is that we have been in most hockey situations before. We have been in Olympic gold medal games, World Championships, and National Championship games, and we can handle the pressure and the expectations in any type of game. As a veteran, you also feel like it is your responsibility to make sure the league succeeds and that the girls in the stands see the best level of hockey possible. I know I didn’t really understand the impact I had on young fans when I was in college, or just out of college, and how much of an impact we can have as role models. You want to give a hundred percent all the time for them, and I think that’s something veteran players understand. I definitely felt comfortable with the pace of play in the league. Playing against players like Brianna Decker and Kacey Bellamy makes you play your best, and I think that’s something I always looked forward to.

 

The Beauts kind of surprised everyone late in the season, becoming an Isobel Cup contender. What can you say about the team’s progress from the beginning of the season to the Isobel Cup? Do you feel you guys kind of embraced the “underdog” role as you went through the postseason?

 

It’s funny because at the beginning of the year, when we lost the first seven games or whatever it was, people completely wrote us off. The only people that really believed we had a chance to peak at the end of the season were the girls in the locker room, and our coaches. I distinctly remember Ric and Shelley coming in the locker room after one game saying, “We are going to get there. We are getting better with every single game, and come playoff time, we are going to succeed.” I think we all really bought into that and put in the work to make it happen.

 

The great thing about every team making the playoffs is that anything can happen, and the team that shows up ready to play at the end of the season is going to win, regardless of what happened in the past. We embraced the underdog role because we knew that opponents wouldn’t take us seriously. We went into game two at Connecticut knowing we were going to win, and when we won, we knew we were taking game 3 as well. That’s not to say Connecticut wasn’t a great opponent, because they were incredibly talented, but we had the heart and the will to win.

 

How did it feel to finally beat Connecticut, and what’s more, in such a clutch moment like the playoffs?

 

Jumping in the celebration at the end of game 3 in Connecticut was my favorite moment of this past season. Connecticut played us tough all season and were the only team that we hadn’t beaten. We came close so many times, forcing overtimes and shootouts, but never had that extra inch to win. Winning at such a clutch moment just added to the excitement and the pride in our team.

 

Overall, what do you take away from this season, both on a team level and individually as a player?

 

From a team standpoint, I am just so incredibly proud to have been a part of the Buffalo Beauts in the first year and there is no other team I would have rather played for. From our coaching staff down, we had an incredible group of people and we really showed a lot of people what women’s hockey is about. As a player, I am just as proud to have been involved in the inaugural season. The best part of this league is that it has gotten more people excited about women’s hockey and has given so many little girls something to look forward to. There is nothing more special than coming out for warm ups in a game and seeing a little girl in the stands wearing your jersey. That is something that I will never forget. I am excited for the future of this league, without a doubt.

 

Earlier in the season, you said you weren’t sure about where you wanted to go with the NWHL long-term — you were just going to enjoy the moment. Now that a full season is in the books, has that perspective changed? If so, how?

 

I think there was so much going on during the season, that I couldn’t think that far ahead or think about my next step, because I was truly just enjoying playing hockey. Now that the season is over, I can absolutely say that I will continue to play in the NWHL as long as possible. We have such an amazing opportunity, as role models and ambassadors of the sport, to help this league grow and help women’s hockey grow. That’s not something I’m willing to step away from yet.

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Q&A with Brianne McLaughlin of the Buffalo Beauts

This will be part of a regular offseason feature on Watch This spotlighting each of the players on the Buffalo Beauts, who made a surprise run to the Isobel Cup Final in the NWHL’s first season. Opening up the feature is Brianne McLaughlin, who was the first NWHLer to sign with the Beauts. She backstopped them to some real success this year, finishing with a .907% save percentage in 14 regular season starts and a .914% save percentage in the playoffs, along with an All-Star appearance. I had the chance to chat with her about her season and how she felt everything went.

Overall, how do you feel about the Beauts’ first season? Was there anything that surprised you, or did it all come together pretty much as you expected?

Our season ended up being exactly what I thought it would be. Being a new group together, it was going to take a little getting used to one another. We started out statistically the worst team in the league, but I knew that we would overcome that and be able to put together some upsets. Once I saw the drive and tenacity in my teammates, I knew you would see the Beauts in the finals.

At media day at the beginning of the season, there was a lot of talk about Buffalo embracing the Beauts because it’s a self-described “hockey heaven.” Do you feel like that held true, looking back?

When I signed with the Beauts, I heard all about how great the community was and how much they would get behind us. That opening day, skating out to a sold-out arena proved how great the city is. Women’s hockey is just recently being supported and publicized the way it deserves [to be]. I’ve played in lesser crowds with a USA jersey on. So to see that many people supporting a new team like that was so incredible.

As we talked about throughout the season, it took a while for the team, especially the defense, to come together as a cohesive unit due to roster issues, etc. Can you elaborate a bit on what it was like to witness and be a part of that progress as the year went on? What are you most proud of with regard to the major strides you guys made that helped you get to the Isobel Cup Final?

Defense was a big focal point for us. In the beginning, the communication just wasn’t there. We were working so hard and not getting the results. With our roster, most of our PP and PK players are the ones that aren’t able to make consistent practices, myself included. Unfortunately, a lot of our practice in these situations was in actual games. We had an entire team that came from different places and different experience levels. Put that all together and it was a little hectic at times. We just kept chipping away at the little details and being louder on the ice, and we eventually molded together to be a pretty solid unit out there. For myself, it was so much easier to just play and do my thing once we all learned each other’s styles, listened for each other out there, and trusted one another.

You personally had a solid first year, struggling early on but regrouping and playing really well after the All-Star Break. By playoffs, it looked like you’d really hit your stride. Talk a bit about what that kind of rebound meant for you?

I’ve gone through many growing points in my career and have played on many different teams. Each team is different, and you have to adapt to that particular team. College was a little chaotic, much like the beginning of our Beauts season, being new teams and everyone doing their own thing at first. [On] the National Team, everyone works as a unit, and they’re pretty much on the same page where you can sit back a little bit and keep it simple. Coming back to a new team and facing 40-plus shots a game and some situations where you have to come up big was another adjustment back to what I spend years getting out of.

It was frustrating at first, because I knew I was a better goalie than what I was putting on the ice. I just had to work through it and work with my teammates. Eventually we came together and were working as a unit. Finally getting back to playing like myself was such a relief. Having fun on the ice like that with my teammates doesn’t get much better — that’s when I’m my happiest and at the top of my game.

How did it feel to finally beat the Whale in such a clutch moment like the playoffs?

Beating the Whale when it counted was the perfect way to define this team! We seemed to like pressure situations and came up big when it was in front of us. The Beauts were one of my favorite teams I’ve ever played with, and definitely the hardest working. That’s what it’s all about. It’s one thing to be more skilled than another team and expected to win. When you have to play together, support one another, and win out of pure grit, it feels so much better. We earned every win that season; nothing came easy.

Along those same lines, you guys took on kind of an underdog/dark horse role as the playoffs progressed. Was that something you enjoyed?

We loved being the underdog! No one expected us to be there in the Final, and especially to take the Pride into overtime. They had 10 times the skill and experience that we had. We didn’t care, and [we] truly believed we could take them. That kind of mentality going in fired us up and allowed us to play even harder. If we lost, we were suppose to lose. If we won, it would have been the Cinderella story of women’s hockey. Either way, we were there and got to play another weekend together.

What do you take away from this season, ultimately? As you look forward to next season, what are you most excited about?

Looking toward next season I am just excited to build off of what we started. Starting a foundation is the hardest part. We built something we were very proud of, and now we get to add to it and see where we can go with it next season. We’ve proven that with leadership and a team that will go to war with [each other], we can accomplish things we weren’t suppose to. If we continue down that path, I think you will see some pretty great things from the Beauts organization.

Minnesota Has One Whole Professional Basketball Team And They’re Selling Tickets

Did you know Minnesota has a professional basketball team? It’s true, one whole team. They’re based in Minneapolis, they’re called the Lynx, and I have a half season package to see them 8 times this year! So should you, because summer without hockey is hard, and there’s no way you have anything better to do with your time than watch Maya Moore own everyone on the court.

One of the things I love about the WNBA, in fact, is that they have a dedication to showmanship that does double time as a community-focused way to introduce new fans to the sport. If you go to a Lynx game, you’ll be reminded – whether you know it already or not – to stand up until the first Lynx point is scored. Their half time activities range from charmingly mundane during the regular season to genuinely entertaining during the playoffs. And then, of course, there’s the game itself: fast-paced, athletic, fun, and full of tense moments.

The WNBA is also at an interesting point in its life as a league. Their commissioner of five years, Laurel Ritchie, stepped down – very soon after the NBA’s Adam Silver offered some ill-timed criticism of the league’s progress. Even a league that’s 20 years old is not immune from the questions of profitability and sustainability that routinely plague women’s sports. The offseason’s also brought some good news, though. Diana Taurasi, fresh off a year spent playing in Russia (and sitting out the 2015 WNBA season), is back with the Phoenix Mercury. The Lynx will enter the year defending a championship. It all starts May 14th, and I will personally be there with bells on.

Also, God, the farmer’s market starts again the week before. Cabin fever is real.

Boston Pride win inaugural Isobel Cup with sweep of Buffalo Beauts

The first-ever Isobel Cup went to the top-ranked Boston Pride, who beat the upstart Buffalo Beauts in Game Two 3-1 Saturday evening at the Hockey House at the Prudential Center in Newark.

As expected, Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker led the way, with Decker scoring three points (two goals, one assist) en route to earning the MVP trophy for best player in the series. Knight also tallied a goal and an assist.

Although the Pride got on the board fairly early, with Decker’s first goal coming at 11:55 of the first period, the Beauts were able to hold off Boston’s offense for much of the game, mostly on the weight of a stellar performance from Brianne McLaughlin (30 saves).

But in the third period, defensive breakdowns and penalties caught up with Buffalo, and Boston’s top two were able to carry their team to the win. Erin Zach spoiled the shutout bid with her first goal of the playoffs at 19:23 on a power play, but at that point, it was clear who would be lifting the first NWHL championship trophy.

Brittany Ott made 29 saves in her first playoff shutout and a solid performance of her own, where she withstood multiple net-crashing opportunities (mainly by the Kourtney Kunichika line) and rushes by Buffalo’s top two scorers, Meghan Duggan and Kelley Steadman.

This win is emblematic of the continued dominance of Boston pro women’s hockey; as most know by now, many of the Pride’s players had won the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup championship a season ago as members of the Boston Blades. However, the Buffalo Beauts were very much an underdog in the Isobel Cup playoffs, stunning the Whale in three games in the semis and pushing Boston to the limit in Game One of the Finals (where a fortuitous penalty shot call to none other than Knight gave the Pride a win). Unfortunately for Buffalo, time and experience were not their allies, and the Pride were able to roll for the win in the second game.

However, it should be noted that the Beauts have made perhaps the biggest leap of any team in the league, as they played their best hockey at the right time in order to get to Newark in the first place. This is a tenacious, speedy team that’s been a ton of fun to watch, and this is likely just a sign of bigger things to come for them.

Congratulations to the Boston Pride on their Isobel Cup win, to the Buffalo Beauts (as well as the Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters) for excellent seasons, and to the National Women’s Hockey League for making history!