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.

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.”

Buffalo Beauts First Practice and Media Day

The tattoo on Buffalo Beauts forward Erin Zach’s left arm reads, “Nothing is impossible.” As a member of Western New York’s first-ever paid professional women’s hockey team, in the first modern paid women’s hockey league in North America, it certainly rings true.

The Beauts stepped onto the ice as a unit for the first time Wednesday evening at the Harborcenter’s First Niagara Rink. In a session lasting about five and a half hours, players got fitted for equipment and skates, took headshots, did video introductions, spoke with the media and then, after a dinner break, finally got out to practice.

Everyone seemed animated and anxious to get onto the ice, a sentiment confirmed by goaltender Brianne McLaughlin when asked about it in the players’ press conference.

“It’s like when you’re looking forward to vacation and time is going by really slow, and then when you’re on vacation it’s going to go by really fast,” she said, laughing alongside new teammates Zach and forward Devon Skeats.

Brianne McLaughlin trying out goalie pants and shells. #buffalobeauts #NWHL

A photo posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

In fact, McLaughlin, Skeats and Zach were the first to sign with the Beauts, who have 18 players altogether on their roster (three as of yet unconfirmed due to unfinalized contract negotiations). A lineup heavy on speed and offensive skill, it also boasts a considerable amount of regionally-based talent including three former RIT Tigers in Zach, forward Kourtney Kunichika and defender Lindsay Grigg. Goaltender Kimberly Sass actually hails from the Buffalo area; she graduated from Williamsville North High School and is currently working on her thesis in architecture at the University at Buffalo. Playing with the Beauts allows her to continue school while playing the game she loves. “It’s a dream come true,” she said of the opportunity. “Growing up in the area and getting to play professionally after college… I didn’t think I was going to be able to play again.” Faced with the decision to either focus on her career or leave behind all she knew to try and play professionally in Europe, Sass chose her career and stayed in hockey by way of coaching and playing in state tournaments like the Empire State Games. Now, she has the chance at the best of both worlds. “Once I heard of the league, I knew this was something I had to be a part of,” she said. “With it being a month away, I just can’t wait till October when the games actually start. “Seeing friends and family in the stands will be quite the experience.” Also part of the experience: playing and learning under another pioneer of the game in Shelley Looney, one of the two head coaches for the Buffalo Beauts. Looney played in Nagano, Japan on the 1998 Olympic team that won the U.S. its first-ever gold medal in women’s hockey (in fact, she scored the game-winner in the gold medal game). Now director of the Buffalo Bison Hockey Association, which is a youth travel league, she is also working alongside former NHLer Ric Seiling behind the Beauts’ bench.

Head coaches Looney, Ric Seiling, and GM Linda Mroz. #buffalobeauts #NWHL A photo posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

During practice, the coaches worked in tandem, with Seiling starting drills and Looney occasionally halting play to provide feedback for players. According to them, this will be the plan throughout the season; rather than splitting duties, both coaches will work together to help get the best out of their players.

Looney believes the time is ripe for a pro women’s hockey league stateside.

“As a former player, back when I played there wasn’t an opportunity,” she said. “I think it’s time now for women’s hockey to be at the forefront here in the United States. The skill and talent level are there. We’ve just got to get it out to the public and show them the great product we have.”

Buffalo is also a prime location for a women’s hockey team. Putting aside any misgivings about the winters here, the people in the 716 area code are passionate about their hometown sports. As Zach jokingly pointed out: “The Sabres sell out all the time, and they’re… not very good.” There are also plenty of female players in the area hoping to either continue playing or get into the game, as evidenced by the number of developmental organizations that cater to both boys’ and girls’ hockey.

Moreover, the Beauts’ home arena, Harborcenter, couldn’t be any better. Sabres owner Terry Pegula financed the state-of-the-art facility, which is right next to First Niagara Center in the heart of downtown Buffalo. Its location is excellent; it’s just off the Metro Rail, the light rail system connecting the suburbs to downtown, as well as being close to multiple major bus lines. In addition, it’s brand-new — the rinks were opened in November 2014 and the Marriott hotel attached to it opened just this August.

Harborcenter provides what Seiling says is the best arena in the league and a huge selling point for any player thinking about coming to play for the Beauts.

“I don’t think anyone from any visiting team will be walking out of here going, ‘Boy, I’m glad we play where we do,’” he said. “They’re going to want to come and play here.”

Once on the ice, the speed of the Beauts was what stood out. Skeats (who turned heads during May’s free agent camp) and Kunichika utilized it perhaps the most, while 5-foot-11 Paige Harrington (the tallest player on the team) used her size and reach to power down the ice, showing off nice hands in the process. Meanwhile, McLaughlin rarely missed a beat in net, making point-blank stops on several skaters during scrimmage play.

#BuffaloBeauts #NWHL

A video posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

Players and staff alike think the spirit of this inaugural squad will have much in common with the spirit of Buffalo itself — blue-collar.

“There’s a lot of hard-working players that we have collaborating on this team,” Looney said of her new squad. “I think you need a little bit of everything, and that’s what I think we’ve been able to get here. We have a lot of smaller, quicker players, and I think that’ll catch a lot of other teams off guard.”

The Beauts will be able to prove that with their season opener Oct. 11 at home against the Boston Pride. Puck drop is at 3:30 p.m. at the First Niagara Rink in the Harborcenter. Season ticket packages for all four NWHL teams are now available.

 

For more photos and video of the Beaut’s first practice, check out Angelica’s Instagram account.