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.

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.

Late goal by Boston Pride ends Buffalo Beauts’ regular season with loss

The Buffalo Beauts finished the season with a solid effort, but not a win, as Jillian Dempsey scored on a power-play opportunity late in the third period to lift the Boston Pride to a 3-2 win over the hosts at Harborcenter Sunday afternoon.

Buffalo came out strong in the first, playing the Pride to a near-draw in shots and possession and keeping Boston’s best shooters largely out of the face of Brianne McLaughlin. Boston’s Brittany Ott had to fend off numerous offensive chances as well, particularly ones by Meghan Duggan and Emily Pfalzer (a running theme throughout the game).

After getting stonewalled by Ott and the Pride defense for much of the game, the Beauts broke through in the second, as a giveaway up the middle came to the stick of Hailey Browne. Her snapshot popped over Ott’s glove, giving the Beauts a 1-0 lead. Corinne Buie answered just 45 seconds later with a low shot that snaked through McLaughlin’s pads. Then, a falling Brianna Decker made a second effort in front of the Beauts net that found its way behind McLaughlin, putting the Beauts behind with about 14 minutes to go in the frame.

As it turned out, the Beauts needed about 10 minutes to make it a game once more. Meghan Duggan put home a rebound on a shot from teammate Megan Bozek, in mid-air to knot the score at 2 before time expired in the second. It was a beautiful goal and one a long time coming, as Duggan had had several chances either blocked or steered wide of Ott’s crease.

Unfortunately, the momentum from her goal didn’t last long. In the third, Boston took it to Buffalo’s defenders with strong entry into the zone, dominant possession time and effective defense to keep the Beauts from getting close to the net or sustaining zone time (in fact, the Beauts were outshot 11-4 in that final period). Dempsey’s goal came with just under six minutes remaining in the period; Zoe Hickel took the puck in the left corner, drawing Pfalzer to her from in front of the net, which left Dempsey open to get into position at the back door and put away Hickel’s pass before anyone else could pick her up. It was a momentary lapse that ultimately cost Buffalo a win that didn’t mean much in the standings, but could have sent them to Connecticut on a positive note.

Despite the end result, the Beauts were pleased with the way they played throughout the game.

“I think they weren’t expecting us to come out flying like we did, and we had them back on their heels in that first period,” McLaughlin said of the effort. “Moving forward into the playoffs, that’s the perfect game — what we just did.”

Playing Boston at Harborcenter helped the Beauts come full circle from where they started in October (also on home ice, and against the Pride). However, this team is leaps and bounds above where they were when the puck first dropped. Much of that, both McLaughlin and forward Devon Skeats asserted, was due to the team needing time to get used to each other, something that was difficult to do with five key players missing for over a month due to visa issues. Dealing with having high-scoring forwards out of the lineup, like Duggan or Kelley Steadman (who had a commitment at RMU and missed Sunday’s game), is also a factor; however, the Beauts managed to be competitive despite those issues.

“We’ve gotten used to that,” McLaughlin said. “There always seems to be one of our key players missing per game, so we just kind of put it on each other to step up and fill that role.”

And they’ve found secondary players, like Skeats (who scored nine of the Beauts’ 54 goals in the regular season) to do just that. Though she came in late, she had an impact very quickly, and she says she’s happy with what she and the Beauts have been able to do in their first season.

“We’ve all come together as a team, and I think we’ve been pretty successful this year,” she said. “I know we had a bumpy start, but now I think we’re coming together and we’re all really ready for playoffs.”

Those playoffs start Friday, March 4, with Buffalo heading out to Chelsea Piers CT to play the Whale. It will be a best-of-three throughout the weekend, with the tiebreaker game set for Sunday evening if necessary.

Two- and potentially three-game weekends are not what the Beauts (or any team) are used to, but that aside, the team is sure of itself heading into the postseason.

“I think every girl in this room knows that we can beat any team in this league, so it just reassures our confidence,” Skeats said. “I know the game didn’t really go our way tonight, sometimes that happens, but we’re definitely ready for next weekend.”

Bozek Helps Buffalo Beauts Clinch Third Seed Over New York Riveters

 

An even game in the first period turned into a rout, as the Buffalo Beauts overwhelmed the New York Riveters’ defense and goaltender Nana Fujimoto, winning 5-1 at Harborcenter Sunday and clinching the third seed in the Isobel Cup playoffs.

The Beauts also made a little bit of history Sunday, becoming the first team in NWHL history to have a mascot. Krusher (with a K), donated by the KIA Memorial Roadmarch, made her debut at Harborcenter, dropping the ceremonial puck with the players and tossing out tee shirts to the crowd. Perhaps Krusher proved to be the lucky charm the Beauts needed to pull ahead of New York for good.

Defender Megan Bozek had three points in the win, including the goal to start off the Beauts’ scoring. The entire blueline in fact stepped up and jumped into the play, with Emily Pfalzer adding an assist and Paige Harrington and Lindsay Grigg having excellent games.

Bozek’s goal came in the first period as she carried the puck into the zone, slapping it past Fujimoto’s right pad as she crossed the ice. It was a break for the Beauts, who had only four shots recorded on net despite a number of rushes into the zone; meanwhile, the Riveters had eight, with much of the play being stymied in the neutral zone for both teams.

The Riveters briefly tied it in the second period — Bray Ketchum made good on a penalty shot she received after Bozek hooked her on a breakaway. But with eight minutes to go, Bozek sent Duggan on a beautiful drive that resulted in her going top shelf on Fujimoto to break the tie.

From that point forward, it was all Beauts. While the Riveters executed good defensive strategy for much of the game, staying low, clogging the middle of the ice and collapsing onto whoever carried the puck into the zone, the Beauts’ relentless forecheck finally found its way to the net in the third period. Hayley Williams threw a shot from a bad angle to the front of the net that Fujimoto stopped, but Tatiana Rafter was there to collect and put home the rebound for her second goal of the season, and then Kourtney Kunichika quickly added her ninth of the year to pad the lead. Despite a timeout and pulling their goalie, the Riveters failed to generate much on offense, and Kelley Steadman sealed the win with an empty-net goal.

General manager Linda Mroz said the kind of effort the Beauts put forth Sunday was what she had envisioned seeing all season after putting together the roster.

“I’m blaming it on the mascot,” she joked, adding that having Krusher there to pep up the lighter-than-usual crowd definitely put a positive spin on the afternoon.

Indeed, Sunday’s game seemed to be the best the team has played all year, with all three components working on the ice at the same time. The penalty kill was solid as well, keeping New York off the board on all four attempts. Forward Hailey Browne said despite the few lulls in the game, Buffalo finished exactly how it intended to.

“We didn’t want a one-goal game, we didn’t want OT,” she said. “We wanted to bury them.”

And bury them the Beauts did, both in goals and shots; after being outshot 8-4 in that opening period, Buffalo came back to dominate possession, outshooting the Riveters 30-18. Brianne McLaughlin wasn’t kept very busy, but still earned the third star of the game for her performance in net.

Defense was definitely a focus in earlier practices as well, according to both Browne and Pfalzer, and it showed — not only did the blueline step up offensively, but it also kept the Riveters well clear of McLaughlin, allowing her to see most shots and forcing wide other opportunities. Harrington, Grigg, and others on the ice also made great individual efforts to fend off fast breaks and passes inside the middle.

“Everyone had a great game,” Pfalzer said of her team’s effort, particularly that of her defensive corps. “It was awesome to see everyone produce.”

The Beauts now have one weekend left in the regular season, and it’s against the team they began it with — the Boston Pride, fresh off of clinching first place in the league after beating the Connecticut Whale 5-3. The points don’t matter quite as much as they might have before, but Browne said the team still wants to finish the season on a high note.

“They’re a very good team,” she said. “We want to just work on our positioning, brush up on our special teams and everything like that, use it as practice — but we really want to win these games.”

As for Connecticut, although they are the one team the Beauts have not managed to beat this season, it should make for an interesting matchup. The competitiveness and intensity have been present in every game between these two teams, particularly after playing so many games against each other early in the year (and all the bad blood built up that implies). But the Beauts also seem to be turning a page at the right time, and it’s something that could possibly alter the course of events heading into the final.

“It’s just a matter of showing up, and what team shows up,” Mroz said. “When we worry about our game, we don’t have to worry about the other team, so basically if the Beauts that showed up today play, and we finish, I can say we’re going to be competitive no matter what.

“We’ve been competitive with Connecticut all throughout the season, so we’ve gotta go, and we’ve gotta go to win.”

The Beauts and Pride face off in their final regular season game Sunday, Feb. 28 at Harborcenter. Live streaming is available via NWHL Cross-Ice Pass, or buy tickets either at the door or on nwhl.co/buy-tickets.