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!

 

Knight penalty shot gives Pride lead over Beauts in Isobel Cup Final

The first overtime result in the history of the NWHL’s postseason came under interesting circumstances, to say the least.

With the Buffalo Beauts called for a penalty in their goaltender’s crease, it was left to one of the best current players in the game to deliver for her team — and Hilary Knight made no mistake.

The Pride forward came in close with speed, going glove side on Brianne McLaughlin to lift the Boston Pride over the Beauts, 4-3 in overtime in a wild finish to Game One of the Isobel Cup Finals at the New Jersey Devils Hockey House at the Prudential Center in Newark.

The call came as McLaughlin was dragged out of position and a defender was deemed to have closed her hand on the puck. Despite protests from the bench and captain Emily Pfalzer, the referees called for a penalty shot, making for an unsatisfying ending to what had been shaping up to be a game for the record books for Buffalo.

The two teams played a tight first period, with Buffalo throwing Boston slightly off guard. The Beauts’ forwards played aggressively, forcing turnovers in the neutral zone and trying to look for rebounds on Brittany Ott. Meanwhile, on the other end, Boston got a couple of good looks in on McLaughlin, but nothing stuck.

The second period was all Boston, however, as Brianna Decker took advantage of a bad breakdown in Buffalo’s zone, streaking in and shooting on McLaughlin. The rebound ended up on Blake Bolden’s stick, and she was able to make it 1-0 Pride. From that point forward, Boston dominated puck possession and made it difficult for the Beauts to exit their own zone and enter Boston’s. A seemingly innocent shot by Gigi Marvin midway through doubled the lead, but Buffalo had an answer. Erin Zach challenged a Pride defender with a diving defensive play, sending the puck up ice with Hannah McGowan and Pfalzer. Although Kacey Bellamy managed to break up their rush, no one on the Pride was able to clear, and Shelby Bram cut the lead in half.

A beautiful shot by Pfalzer tied the game at 2 in the third period, and then a couple of bad penalties by Pride players gave Buffalo the in they needed to try and win it. Zoe Hickel and Bellamy each went to the box within a minute of each other, and though the Beauts could not convert the 5 on 3, Kelley Steadman flew up the wing and got the time and space she needed to put a snap shot past Ott for a 3-2 lead with Bellamy still sitting for her penalty (ironically, one Steadman drew).

However, the lead didn’t last long. Late in the third, the Pride got a power play of their own as Megan Bozek took a delay of game penalty. As the Pride tried to cycle down low, Bellamy threw a centering pass in front and both Decker and Knight whacked at it, with Knight getting the puck past McLaughlin to tie the game back up. A late push by Buffalo ended up fruitless, leading to overtime, where Knight ensured her team a harder-fought victory than any they’ve seen in the postseason thus far.

With a mistake like that resulting in a crushing loss, it’ll be tough for the Beauts to regroup for Saturday evening’s Game Two, but they’ll have to do it quick if they want to have a chance to win the Cup. Despite the errors, the few rebounds from McLaughlin and the breakdown leading to the opening goal, it was a well-played and hard-nosed game from Buffalo, and the crowd in Newark (heavy on Beauts fans) certainly approved. The Kunichika line in particular, so effective at crashing the net and challenging opposing defenders all season, did much of the same tonight, and Pfalzer and Steadman came through exactly when they needed to. Meghan Duggan, who was not in the lineup tonight, could be back tomorrow, so that’ll be one more boost.

Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m. in Newark.

Isobel Cup, Game One: Whale edge Beauts, Pride steamroll Riveters for series leads

Game One of the Isobel Cup had what some might call the expected results, with both higher seeds — No. 1 Boston Pride and No. 2 Connecticut Whale — pulling out wins on their home ice.

Whale 3, Beauts 0: The Buffalo Beauts threw 35 shots at Jaimie Leonoff, but none found the back of the net as the Connecticut Whale goaltender earned herself the first shutout in her team’s history, 3-0, at Chelsea Piers CT in Game One of the Isobel Cup semifinals.

The win gives Connecticut the upper hand over Buffalo in the best-of-three series, as well as a chance to sweep Saturday night. The Beauts managed to have a solid game in the first and third periods despite having both of their top scorers — Kelley Steadman and Meghan Duggan — out of the lineup, likely both due to coaching conflicts.

Both teams played an even game throughout, with an emphasis on defense. The Beauts came out strong on the forecheck, attempting to throw the Whale off early; however, Leonoff was equal to the task, withstanding several rushes from the Skeats-Kunichika-Browne line and the tandem of Erin Zach and Jessica Fickel. However, Connecticut found its legs toward the end of the first, closing the gap in shots 11-9 before the first buzzer.

Special teams took over in the second period, with Buffalo losing its composure and Connecticut capitalizing. Kelli Stack broke the scoreless tie at 9:12 on a 2-on-1 with Shiann Darkangelo at even strength, but the Beauts’ mounting frustration created a line to the penalty box, allowing the Whale to get comfortable on their end of the ice. Five minutes after Stack’s goal, Jessica Koizumi found Sam Faber on the doorstep to double the score. The Beauts had their fair share of chances on the power play, but both Leonoff and the Whale’s defense did well to keep them off the scoresheet, Leonoff moving well post-to-post and hanging onto her rebounds, while the defense got plenty of sticks in the lanes and deflected shot after shot.

Buffalo pushed hard to even the score in the third period, but by that point Leonoff was untouchable, withstanding a shooting gallery (the Whale were outshot 14-2 in the third period) to preserve the shutout and the crucial first win for her team. Kelly Babstock added an empty netter shorthanded in the final minute of the game.

The Beauts will look to force a third game Saturday night at Chelsea Piers, and they will hopefully do so with at least Steadman in the lineup; the practice forward was with Robert Morris University at the CHA Tournament (ironically being held in Buffalo this weekend), but RMU lost to Mercyhurst Friday afternoon, so barring any other conflicts, I’d imagine she’d be making her way to Connecticut for tomorrow evening’s game.

Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chelsea Piers CT. 

Pride 6, Riveters 0: Jenny Scrivens withstood 56 saves and allowed six goals as the Pride barreled over New York, 6-0, at Ray Bourque Arena in Boston. The overmatched Riveters committed six penalties, three of which the Pride were able to convert on, and Brianna Decker and Jillian Dempsey combined for seven points on the evening (Dempsey with four, Decker with three). Brittany Ott made 17 saves for Boston in the win, earning the first shutout in the playoffs in the Pride’s history.

Buffalo Beauts vs. Connecticut Whale For the Isobel Cup: What to know, who to watch

The inaugural Isobel Cup playoffs begin Friday, and they feature a matchup made for this kind of situation — the third-seeded Buffalo Beauts against second seed Connecticut Whale.

If you’ve been paying attention during this first NWHL season, you’ll have noticed a theme in the series between these two teams. It’s sort of a two-parter.

Part One: Despite the Whale sweeping the season series 6-0, these games have been very tightly played.

Part Two: On the ice, these teams don’t much like each other.

The Beauts and Whale have gone to overtime three times in six regular-season games; two of those three have needed a shootout, including a memorable one Nov. 22 in which Buffalo overcame a 6-1 deficit to force the extra session (they lost 7-6 in the shootout, with Kelly Babstock’s goal being the only one scored in the three rounds). Theirs is the only season-long matchup that has needed this many overtimes and shootouts in order to decide a winner, which means we could be in for either free hockey or a third game (or both!).

Many of these games have also been played with a physical edge, perhaps due to the fact that four of the six came within a seven-week span (Oct. 18 to Dec. 6), thus leaving plenty of space for a rivalry to develop. The Whale are slightly larger and use the body more than the Beauts, who rely on speed; nonetheless, these teams have gotten a bit nasty with each other, and it’s resulted in game misconducts (Megan Bozek for slashing on Nov. 22) and suspensions (Molly Engstrom for a cross check to Meghan Duggan’s head Dec. 6). Playoff hockey could either raise the already-high intensity of both of these teams, or it could calm them down, since no one wants to get sidelined in a best-of-three with so much on the line.

Here’s how the matchup looks, from my vantage point:

Offense

Both of these teams have it. The Whale have scored five goals or more three times on the Beauts, but have never had larger than a three-goal lead (and that came in the very first game of the season between them, on Oct. 18). A pair of Kelly/ies (Kelli Stack and Kelly Babstock) head the Whale in points and are tied for third in the league in points with 22 apiece. Both have had solid showings against Buffalo, Babstock with eight points, Stack with seven (only posting zeroes on the scoresheet once, on Dec. 6).
Meanwhile, for the Beauts, the game-changer will really be if Kelley Steadman is in the lineup. She and Duggan (eight points in six games) have had the most success against the Whale, including combining for seven points on Nov. 22. In fact, in just three games played against the Whale, Steadman has nine points, with four of them coming in that shootout loss. (That’s almost half her total for the season, FYI.) If the Beauts are looking to make some damage quickly, they can do it a lot more easily with her on the roster than not. Right now, with the tweet she recently posted of her with Brianne McLaughlin, it looks as though she will be. Also, don’t overlook the second line — Kourtney Kunichika in particular has had some success, if inconsistent, against the Whale.

Defense

Like pretty much all of the other teams in this league, the Whale have a deeper lineup than the Beauts; however, the Beauts have improved the most in their own zone over the past few weeks heading into the playoffs. Fratkin is a defender with a knack for pushing the puck and jumping into the play, as evidenced by her 10 points against Buffalo, and like Bozek, she has a blast of a shot that can find the back of the net. Engstrom and Jordan Brickner can do much of the same; meanwhile, for Buffalo, Pfalzer and Bozek have no problem with contributing offensively as well. Pfalzer had four assists in the Nov. 22 game and can use excellent speed to cut to the net and get in on either Jaimie Leonoff or Nicole Stock. Lindsay Grigg and Paige Harrington have each hit their stride as well on the defensive side of the puck, and the entire team has honed in on protecting their goaltender, closing up most of the seams and angling out potential passing or shooting threats. In recent weeks, multiple Beauts have spoken to the improvement on defense, saying it needed time to really figure out communication and tendencies (and Brianne McLaughlin spoke to the improvements in on-ice communication last week, saying it’s been the best yet). This looks to be the strongest asset Buffalo has heading up against a team loaded with scorers.

Goaltending

McLaughlin has been a trooper in net for most of the season, posting a .904 save percentage with an average of 31 shots per game. Her resilience is paying off, as the defense is finally coming together as a unit at the right time. Behind her, Amanda Makela has proven herself as a strong backup option with some relief stints and a couple of starts of her own, but this is Bri’s show, and the Olympian can certainly handle it. In the other net, Jaimie Leonoff has the best save percentage in the NWHL (.936), and she hasn’t allowed more than two goals against the Beauts all season. If she’s in net (which, if I were Heather Linstad, I would definitely do), the Beauts will have a much tougher time.

Special Teams

The Whale’s top-ranking power play (21 percent all season) against the worst penalty kill in the league (78 percent for Buffalo). If there were anything for Shelley Looney and Ric Seiling to worry about, it’s this, especially considering the success that skater-advantage has had against the Beauts (nine PPG) and the history these teams have had all regular season when it comes to penalties (seriously, look at some of the penalty sheets). Basically, it’s beneficial to the Beauts to stay out of the penalty box at all costs.

Overall

Having watched at least all of the Beauts’ home games against the Whale, I can say this will be a game of “who blinks first”; despite Connecticut’s late-season struggles, the Whale are still the same team on the ice, and they’ll be looking to take it as hard as they can to prove they’re still capable of being top dogs in the league. Meanwhile, the Beauts have been doing a lot of things right in their last couple of games despite not getting wins, particularly on defense. Should they have a full roster, they have a shot at getting at least one win in Connecticut, if not the two they need.

Prediction

Hate to say it, but Connecticut in three. I think Buffalo will play much better than both their seeding and the scoreboards suggest, and well enough to force a third game. But special teams have a way of undoing teams like no other aspect does, and if the Beauts let Connecticut’s physicality throw them off their game, they’re done for.

The puck drops for Game One Friday night at 7:10 p.m. at Chelsea Piers CT. Game Two begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and if necessary, Game Three will be held Sunday at 6 p.m.

NWHL Teams Begin Race For The Isobel Cup

The Isobel Cup Playoffs start today! Here’s what you need to know:

WATCH THE ISOBEL CUP ONLINE:

You’ll be able stream games via the Cross-Ice Pass or ESPN 3.

ISOBEL CUP STRUCTURE:

Both the semifinal and final rounds of the Isobel Cup playoffs have the same structure. Three games are scheduled for each match: Friday, Saturday, and an additional tiebreaker (if needed) on Sunday. If a round does not require a tiebreaker, individual game ticket holders for Sunday’s matches will be refunded.

SEMIFINALS: THIS WEEKEND

The Boston Pride will host the New York Riveters at the Raymond Bourque Arena at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. I’ll be covering this round for Watch This Hockey from the press box – you can follow me on Twitter & Snapchat (ekbartus)!
Friday, March 4 – 7:00 pm ET
Saturday, March 5 – 8:00 pm ET
Sunday, March 6 – 7:00 pm ET

The Connecticut Whale will host the Buffalo Beauts at the Whale’s home rink, Chelsea Pears in Stamford, CT.
Friday, March 4 – 7:10 pm ET
Saturday, March 5 – 7:30 pm ET
Sunday, March 6 – 6:00 pm ET

FINALS: NEXT WEEKEND

The winners of each semifinal round will compete for the Isobel Cup at Prudential Center Practice Facility, Newark, NJ. Attention, everyone headed to New Jersey: please eat some disco fries for me.
Friday, March 11 – 7:30 pm ET
Saturday, March 12 – 7:30 pm ET
Sunday, March 13 – 1:30 pm ET