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.