By the time the Boston Blades concluded their six-game series against Brampton Thunder on December 6, they seemed to be finding their feet, if not yet a win. They’ve struggled both defensively and offensively in front of the net–Genevieve Lacasse broke a record for saves during a CWHL season this Saturday night, and she’s now made 741 over a total of 16 games, posting a SVP of .917–but their team was beginning to look like, well, a team. Captain Tara Watchorn was upbeat and confident when I spoke to her on December 6, which is the last full game she played for the team.
Since she left the Blades’ game against the Inferno on December 12, Watchorn has played the first half of one game (against the Furies on December 19) and been scratched from the roster for two because of an upper-body injury. Defense Dru Burns and forward Megan Myers have also been late scratches for the last two and three games, respectively, for personal reasons. Without them, the Blades look disorganized and disoriented on the ice. Their defeats by the Calgary Inferno on December 12 (4-0) and 13 (4-1) weren’t surprising–Calgary is leading the league–but their collapse against the Toronto Furies this weekend was less expected.
While the Toronto Furies do have the terrifying and capable Natalie Spooner on their roster, they’ve been just above the Blades in the CWHL standings for most of the season. The Blades’ only victory (in overtime) so far this season was against the Furies back in October. Toronto should have been the closest to an even match that the Blades have faced so far this season. Instead, Boston saw a single goal (from Megan Shea in the final minute) on Saturday in their 4-1 loss to Toronto, and a shutout by Sonja van der Bliek on Sunday that left the score at 4-0. That shutout happened during a game in which Boston had zero penalties and Toronto had four minors, including two that overlapped, giving Boston a precious 37 seconds of 5-on-3 advantage. What happened? Everyone ended up stuck behind Toronto’s net, along with the puck. Reader, I screamed.
There are a number of factors that led to the Blades’ collapse against the Furies this weekend, most of but not all of them on the blue line. The absence of key players Watchorn and Burns made the deficits of other players more glaring. According to Burns, the Blades are playing 1 – 2 – 2 system, but for that to work, those last two players have to actually stay back and keep the puck in the offensive zone and out of their own. I spent a lot of Sunday’s game against the Furies trying to pick out the Blades’ defensive players who weren’t Sarah Duncan. Frankly, it was difficult to tell when they were engrossed in the offensive fray and scrambling for the puck.
This defensive confusion magnified the consistent issue plaguing the Blades this weekend, which was their inability to hold onto the puck. Missed passes combined with repeated-chip-and-chases led to frequent turnover and movement from zone to zone. The Furies were visibly faster and quicker to react, shutting down scoring chances from the Blades both by creating traffic in front of the net but also by constantly intercepting stray passes. The Blades’ inability or choice not to carry the puck into the offensive zone failed them time and time again. By the time Megan Shea scored the Blades’ lone goal this weekend and dove into a shower of falling teddy bears (yes, it was the Blades’ teddy bear toss this weekend) on Saturday night, the onlookers were all concerned what to do with the bears if Christina Kessler managed a shutout for the Furies. Should we throw them to Lacasse, like a bouquet? Should we throw them at Kessler and attempt to smother her? No offense to Kessler, who blocked 29 of 30 shots on Saturday–I’d have felt the same about any other goalie in her position, smack in front of the Blades’ opponents’ net.
While I have all the sympathy for the Blades, my concern for their progress this season has risen again. While Burns and Myers should soon return to the Blades’ bench, Watchorn’s extended absence has already caused a major setback for the team. They’ve worked so hard to craft the cohesion I saw against the Thunder, both building a team nearly from scratch and facing a heavily front-loaded schedule for the season. The Boston Blades have played more games than any other team in the league–16–and have only eight more to go, six of those against Les Canadiennes, who will be a formidable opponent.