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.”