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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.