On Denna Day, Fins Down, First Place, and Farewell to Harvard

On February 14th, the crowd at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center turned out not in the familiar Harvard crimson, but in yellow. While the Boston Pride’s last home game was a tensely fought match with their most heated rival, the Connecticut Whale, the Pride’s focus was on teammate Denna Laing. For the first time since her injury during the Women’s Winter Classic on December 31st, Laing joined her teammates on the ice for a photo prior to warm-ups as well as fistbumps and hugs at the start of the game. The merchandise table quickly sold out of the wristbands and adult-sized shirts whose proceeds go to help Denna Laing. (If you’re interested in other ways to help Denna Laing in addition to donating money, see my post from last week.) Over 1900 people were in the stands of the Bright-Landry Center, the highest attendance since the Pride’s home opener on November 22nd.

Sunday’s game was the Pride’s fifth against the Whale, whom the Pride have now seen for three of their past four games. The Whale remained undefeated until December 27th, when the Pride won 2-1 with a shortened roster than included both Laing and Pride GM Hailey Moore, who signed a single-day contract with the league to play. Since then, the Pride have held steady against the Whale. Some of the Pride’s success can certainly be attributed to overall defensive improvement, but their growing familiarity with the Whale has also worked in their favor. The Pride remain the only team to defeat the Whale: they’ve now done so four times, all in regulation. This weekend’s 4-2 win pushed the Pride into first place in the league standings, putting them at 25 points to the Whale’s 24.

Jordan Smelker led the Pride on that push to first place with a three-point outing on Sunday that made her NWHL’s Player of the Week. She scored the Pride’s first goal late in the first period and the game-winning midway through the third, finishing off with an assist on Gigi Marvin’s empty-netter. Pride captain Brianna Decker scored the Pride’s remaining goal early in the third. The Whale leveled only 12 shots on goal to the Pride’s 37, spending a full ten minutes of the game short-handed and much of the rest hemmed in their own zone. Goaltender Brittany Ott allowed two goals, putting her at a .833 SVP for the game, lower than her .927 season average, but the early lead and strong defense from the Pride never let them seem vulnerable.

After the game, the atmosphere in the locker room was jubilant, no doubt helped by a huge box of Top Shelf cookies. ” I feel pretty strong about fins down,” Ott said of every Pride fan’s favorite hashtag. Her outlook on the Pride’s final matchup with the Whale next weekend was pragmatic. “I think we just have to keep plugging away at what we’ve been doing. I think we’ve been gaining a lot of momentum as we’ve been going along this season. We can’t go in there overconfident or cocky or anything like that, they’ll definitely capitalize on that. They’re a good team, they’re smart players. So we just have to keep focusing on us and improving this week and we’ll be ready.”

The Pride will host the 3rd or 4th seed for the semifinal round of the inaugural Isobel Cup playoffs at Raymond Bourque Arena in Beverly, but this is their final game at Harvard. Former Harvard women’s hockey captain Jillian Dempsey said of her return to Bright-Landry, “Everybody always gives me a hard time because of all my Harvard hockey love—” (She was interrupted by riotous laughter from locker room.) “I’m a little biased, but it’s the best sheet of ice in the whole country. ” Ott was clearly moved by the turnout for the game. “It was incredible to see the wave going around there a few times,” she said. “That was like something I definitely had to take in for a second because that was just an awesome feeling.”

With a five-win streak behind them, the Boston Pride have hit their stride as they head into the final two games of the regular season. “They’re a tough team to beat,” said Connecticut Whale forward Brittany Dougherty, who scored her first goal in Sunday’s game. “They’re fast, they’re skilled, they have a couple Olympians that can just put the puck in the net. The only way to beat them is to work harder than them.”