Boston Blades Skate Out 2015 With A Whimper, Not A Bang

Boston Blades Sadie St. Germain and Rachel Farrel on the ice.
Boston Blades teammates Sadie St. Germain and Rachel Farrel wait to take a shot on Genevieve Lacasse during warm ups on Saturday, December 21.
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.

Toronto Furies players Natalie Spooner, Tomomi Kurata, Sonja van der Bliek on the ice at NESC.
Toronto Furies Natalie Spooner, Tomomi Kurata, and Sonja van der Bliek (in teammate Sami Jo Small’s jersey) idle on the ice during warmups at NESC on Saturday, December 19.

The Boston Blades: Work In Progress

The last time I attended a Boston Blades game, it was the Blades’ home opener against the Calgary Inferno on October 31, a rout which ended 7-1 Calgary. I wasn’t hopeful about the Blades’ chances for the season by the game’s conclusion, and they’ve continued to struggle throughout the first half, netting a single shoutout victory over the Toronto Furies on October 18 with 11 losses in regulation. The Blades lost again on Sunday to the Brampton Thunder (4-2), but the vibe postgame couldn’t have been more different than when I spoke to team captain Tara Watchorn at the end of the home opener. Even fresh off another loss, all three players I spoke with were excited and hopeful, and by that point, so was I. The Boston Blades are doing great stuff, and I’m hoping they stick around for many seasons to come. Here’s why.

Back in May, the very first post I wrote for Watch This Hockey focused on the impending dissolution of the Boston Blades’ stacked roster and the impact of the National Women’s Hockey League on the state of professional women’s hockey in the United States. As the NWHL (and revived Minnesota Whitecaps) are showing, there’s a huge pool of untapped talent here as well as a sustainable market for women’s hockey. The United States can compete. This fledgling iteration of the Blades is no exception.

The Blades are having difficulty finding their footing for a number of reasons. Last year, cracking the Blades roster was a test of merit; with five competing teams, women’s hockey is now a marketplace that enables talented players to shop around. Since the CWHL does not pay players (although the league has announced a plan to start doing so in the 2017-2018 season), the Blades offer no financial incentive. Players who once had no option but Boston now have the option to live in several different metro areas–after last winter, I can’t blame anyone for fleeing south. Last, but not least, as Watchorn said to me on Sunday, “Before, there was only the one team… I think a lot of girls came out of college and it was tough, you had one roster to crack, so a lot of girls didn’t continue to play.”

Most of the Blades’ new roster have had a few years since they were regularly on the ice, and the team only has two weekly practices, one hour each on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In addition to developing team cohesion after intense roster change and a complete turnover in management and coaching, the Boston Blades are also focusing on developing the players themselves. “There’s a lot of girls who played college and played not as a big a role for four years,” said Watchorn. “And now they’re here and they get a lot of ice and get to be a bigger impact on the team and they’re really thriving in that role. They’re getting a lot of confidence and it’s really showing.”

One of those thriving players is forward Sadie St. Germain, who graduated from Syracuse in 2014 and joined the Blades roster alongside her sister Clara this year. St. Germain scored her first professional goal on Sunday, an unassisted breakaway during the second period that was the Blades’ opening goal against the Thunder. “Our winger just poked it out, it was supposed to be a pass, she went a little far ahead with it, but I just poked it past the D or two D that were in front of me and then just won the footrace and I wasn’t going to miss the goal after that, so,” St. Germain said. Of the Blades, she said, “This is actually one of the most fun teams I’ve ever been on. Everybody is just very happy to be here and be playing again, and I think that just drives us all, we’re all on the same page and we all just click.”

Both Watchorn and defense Dru Burns stressed the team’s atmosphere as well as player development being important to the team. “Everyone gets along so well.. we’re having so much fun on and off the ice. It’s so much fun to be a part of [the Blades] and watch the team grow and girls get better every game,” Burns said. While some players did seem frustrated as they came off the ice on Sunday, for a team that had just seen their tenth loss in a row, the three players I spoke seemed to be having a good time. They had played a good game, after all: that loss against Brampton was closer than the score suggests.

Last Sunday’s game at Rodman Arena concluded the Boston Blades’ six-game series against the Brampton Thunder. This match was the Blades’ strongest showing yet. While the game ended 4-2, the scoreboard read 0-0 at the end of the first period and 1-1 at the end of the second. The crux of the Blades’ defensive success remains goaltender Genevieve Lacasse, who’s stood on her head almost every game this season. She blocked 46 of the 49 shots leveled on goal (Brampton’s final goal was an empty netter), finishing with a .938 SVP to Thunder goaltender Liz Knox’s .866 SVP. That said, the Blades continue to improve defensively. Burns credits the 1-2-2 system the Blades have been using, which she described as “more laidback” and easier for the team to work on with in limited practice time. While Brampton managed one goal at even strength and a concluding empty netter when Boston had six players on the ice, the remaining half of their goals were scored on powerplay. Considering the Blades spent 8 minutes with a player in the box and the Thunder only 4, the Blades need to work on both player discipline and their penalty kill. Also, they need to stop pulling Lacasse. That said, this was a close game. So close.

The Boston Blades I saw on Sunday were not the Blades that I saw at the end of October. They’re playing a much tighter game, and they’re far more competitive. The growing confidence Watchorn spoke of is becoming evident on the ice. “We’re getting better every day and we’ve just gotta find that win,” she said on Sunday. I believe they can.

NYR @ BOS: Jenny Scrivens and Brittany Ott Face Off in Boston

Jenny Scrivens and Brittany Ott in goal (two photos placed in opposition in black and white)
Jenny Scrivens in warmups before NYR @ BOS on 12/6; Brittany Ott midgame during CTW @ BOS on 11/29.

Saturday night’s game for the Boston Pride against the visiting Buffalo Beauts was a high-scoring, rollercoaster ride: 13 goals, four goalies, and a hat trick from Devon Skeats that still didn’t net the Beauts a win. Sunday’s match against the Riveters had a different tone altogether. Scoreless through the first two periods, this was the first NWHL game to go without a goal for this long. The Pride’s Jillian Dempsey was the first to put to get the puck in the net nearly 50 minutes into the game. While Saturday saw a stellar offensive effort from both the Pride and the Beauts, it was the Pride and the Riveters’ goaltending that shone on Sunday. Specifically, Jenny Scrivens and Brittany Ott.

When Jenny Scrivens joined the Riveters roster as the third goalie in their lineup behind Nana Fujimoto and Shenae Lundberg, more was made of her dual role in the NWHL organization (PR) and her marriage to Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens than her goaltending skills. With Fujimoto the clear forerunner when it came to ice time, it seemed unlikely that Scrivens would spend much time in net; she was the last NWHL goaltender to make her debut, with six minutes to go in the Riveters’ game against the Beauts on November 29th. Sunday’s game was Scrivens’ first start in net after Fujimoto and Lundberg were both sidelined by injury. Since the NWHL requires two goaltenders to dress for each game, Boston College veteran Corinne Boyles was called up to serve as Scrivens’ backup for the game. Scrivens’ debut was awaited eagerly by many. How would she do against the Pride, arguably the strongest offensive force in the league? This seems an intimidating prospect for any opposing goaltender’s starting debut, let alone one coming back into the game after five years off the ice.

Coincidentally, Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center is the last place where Scrivens started in goal, then playing for Cornell in the 2009 playoffs. “That was the last time I’ve actually played a game,” Scrivens confirmed post-game. You wouldn’t know it from her composure on the ice. Scrivens seemed confident and composed throughout the game, fending off 30 shots from the Pride, sometimes with dramatic saves. Most of the excitement of this game was watching Scrivens dazzle in net. Scrivens credited some off her command in net to her play last Sunday. “I think the six minutes I got last week really helped, because I wasn’t as nervous as I expect I would be, and I was able to settle right into my game and try my best to give our team a chance.” While the final score was 4-1 Boston, two of those were empty net goals from Hilary Knight (Scrivens was pulled twice by the Riveters in an effort to even the score). Scrivens added, “I see it as a one-goal game. I don’t see it as a four-goal game.”

Even Pride coach Bobby Jay praised her play. He had more to say, though, about the other goaltender on the ice on Sunday: the Pride’s Ott, who allowed only one of the Riveters’ 22 shots in the net. Ott has struggled in her past few games at home, including during the Pride’s three-loss streak, and Lauren Slebodnick started in goal against the Beauts the previous day before being replaced by Ott in the third period. While Scrivens’ stellar success was unanticipated and dramatic, Ott’s improvement was just as notable. “I’m so happy for her – both of them – all three of them have worked tremendously hard. We hit a little rough spot – I know her and Lauren haven’t played as good as I know they could and they know they can recently,” Bobby Jay said. “Even for established veterans with a lot of experience and success, everyone goes through it from time to time, so I give her a lot of credit mentally for fighting through it and putting in a great performance today.” Hopefully, Sunday’s game is a return to the stellar goaltending Ott has delivered in the past for the Boston Blades and the University of Maine.

Stalwart goaltending might not be as exciting to watch as the firestorm of the Pride’s game against Buffalo on Saturday night, but it’s a crucial component of both the Riveters’ and the Prides’ future success that has been a recent struggle for the Pride. I’m looking forward to seeing Ott continue to shine on the ice, as well as the new, personal struggle of whether to root for the Pride as a whole or just Jenny Scrivens.

Hats for Skeats, Victory for Boston

The Boston Pride came back from a three-game losing streak tonight, and they did it in style, starting strong with a 5-2 lead at the end of the first period and holding steady against the Buffalo Beauts for a 7-6 victory. Despite a hat trick from Devon Skeats, the Beauts couldn’t rebound from the Pride’s early success. This is the highest-scoring game the Pride have yet played at home. Energy was high from start to finish, on the ice and in the stands. While attendance was the lowest of the three home games so far (likely due to a conflict with the Bruins game tonight, which also preempted broadcast on NESN), the crowd was enthusiastic, especially the small group of Beauts fans who had traveled south to cheer on their home team.

Up in the press box, I was also enthusiastic. “I want this to be a 20-goal game,” I said. “I want Hilary Knight to get six points.” Say what you want about the defense situation or the sad state of my note-taking by the end of the game (none of that is correct), this game was a blast to watch. “You get a goal, and you get a goal—ten people get goals!”

After the game, Pride players agreed that strengthening their play in the first period was crucial to tonight’s victory. Hilary Knight, one of the team’s two captains, praised teammates Rachel Llanes and Jillian Dempsey, who opened the game with two neat goals in succession by Dempsey off Llanes’s assists. “We came out hard, and that was key. Last couple games, we’ve given them one, two quick goals. Really wanted to tighten it up. We came and scored the first goal today… I think we built off that first period,” said co-captain Brianna Decker. Amanda Pelkey spoke of Decker’s leadership as the Pride worked to improve: “Decker talked about being committed, from the drop of the pick committed… That was our first focus, to start off well.” That commitment was evident on the ice today.

Of course, a high-scoring game signals issues with defense. Buffalo pulled Brianne McLaughlin after she allowed five goals in the first period and sent in Amanda Makela, who allowed only two more throughout the game. Lauren Slebodnick started in the net for Boston, but was replaced by Brittany Ott after Devon Skeats’ hat trick five minutes into the third period. Defense Kacey Bellamy said of the Pride’s performance tonight, “We still haven’t played a full 60-minute game yet. Throughout the game, we can’t let our lead close like that. But [the Beauts] played us tight tonight and it was a good challenge for us.”

Coming off a slow start, it’s a pleasure to see the Buffalo Beauts rise to that challenge. Skeats, who is this week’s NWHL Player of the Week, finished out the game with three goals and two assists for a total of five points. “We just came off our first win, so we wanted to bring that momentum back into this game,” she said of the Beauts’ preparation for their first game in Boston. “We know we can compete with every team in this league.” The Beauts played a solid game against the Pride despite missing key players, including Meghan Duggan (who coached Clarkson University to a win tonight), Kelley Steadman (who does not travel with the team, according to coach Ric Seiling), and goaltender Kimberly Sass (who is finishing her thesis). While the Pride had the momentum at the start of the game, the Beauts came back from a 1-5 disadvantage towards the end of the first period to lose 6-7 to the Pride. Skeats said that they’ll be focusing on a better first period in tomorrow’s game against the Whale.

What can we expect from the Boston Pride tomorrow in their game against the New York Riveters? A lot of energy, according to Pride players. “I think that we’re going to probably play better tomorrow,” said Pelkey. “It’s easier on the legs, in a way? Reverse psychology, I guess. You have the adrenaline even the day after.” Decker added, “We would love to play 2 games every weekend. It’s obviously a little more mentally and physically a strain on your body but they’re fun games to play in. We’re looking forward to tomorrow.”

Boston Pride Head Into Weekend Double-Feature Off Loss to Undefeated Whale

Connecticut Whale players hug in celebration on the ice after scoring a goal on the Boston Pride.
Connecticut Whale players celebrate their first goal against the Boston Pride on Sunday, November 29.

With six games under each team’s belt, the National Women’s Hockey League is now a third of the way through its first season, as illustrated by this lovely infographic. The Boston Pride’s seventh and eighth games will take place at home this weekend at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center, where they will play the Buffalo Beauts on Saturday evening and the New York Riveters on Sunday afternoon. The Pride are coming off a three-game losing streak after opening the season with a three-win streak that matched the high expectations for a team with such a stacked roster. The Beauts capped their five-game losing streak with a win last Sunday, the Riveters have won two games and lost four, and the Connecticut Whale are the lone team that remains undefeated.

Last Sunday, the Pride struggled to find their footing against the Whale, much as they had the previous week against the Riveters. Those two games had more than a few similarities: the opposing team scored on the Pride twice within a few minutes of puck drop, and the Pride struggled to catch up to an early lead. However, I saw a notable improvement on the ice between the Pride’s home opener and their play against the Whale last weekend–while the Pride had difficulty moving play out of the defensive zone when they faced the Riveters, they were far more successful in getting the puck into the Whale’s zone. The Whale stood out in Sunday’s game for their skill at intercepting passes, Jaime Leonoff’s stellar goaltending, and their exceptional defense. Despite being outshot 42-21 and a strong effort from the Pride late in the game, the Whale pulled off a narrow 4-3 win.

To succeed against the Beauts and Riveters this weekend, the Pride are going to have to step up their opening strength and tighten their defense. While one clear element in their past two losses is difficult to overcome–stellar goaltending from Nana Fujimoto and Leonoff–preventing goals against is something they can obviously work on. Pride goaltender Brittany Ott has struggled in the past few weeks; after allowing three goals from the Whale, she was pulled midway through the second period on Sunday and replaced by Lauren Slebodnick, who let only one into the net. When I asked Ott post-game about the Pride’s goaltending strategy–Ott has seen the majority of the Pride’s ice time, with Slebodnick and Fralick spending little time in net–she said, “I can’t really speak to Coach [Bobby Jay]’s plan. We get notified Thursday, it’s totally his call, every week.” While Ott is certainly an elite goaltender, I’m curious to see how Slebodnick or Fralick would perform for the Pride.

When I was spoke with Ott, defense Blake Bolden, and forward Amanda Pelkey, all three players stressed both the caliber of the Whale’s play and their commitment to the Pride’s improvement against their competition. Bolden spoke to the Whale’s “strong offensive talent” and Pelkey to their ability to “capitalize on chances.” Both qualities, however, could also be attributed to the Pride. I’m looking forward to seeing them in this weekend’s games.

Selected recaps from Whale at Pride on Sunday:
– Today’s Slapshot: Connecticut Remains Undefeated After Beating Boston by Kate Cimini
– Stanley Cup of Chowder: Boston Pride lose third straight by Kat Hemming
– Boston Magazine: Boston Pride’s Late Surge Falls Short, as Connecticut Whale Win Sixth in a Row by Kyle Clauss

Boston Pride vs. New York Riveters: Honestly, They’re All Historic Games

“How does it feel to win the first game of the NWHL broadcast on TV? Do you have family watching at home? Anyone have NESN?” I said to the Riveters players who had gathered for the press after Sunday’s game. Brooke Ammerman, Madison Packer, and Meghan Fardelmann, who scored the game-winning goal against the Pride, looked amongst each other with confusion. NESN is a popular sports channel in Boston, but its national reach is narrower.

Finally, Ammerman said, “Well, it’s good, because we didn’t win the first two historic games. I guess third time’s the charm.”

Third and fourth, it seems. The Pride lost to the Riveters for the second game in a row yesterday, going down 2-3 in a hard-fought game that kept everyone in the stands riveted from puck drop until the end of regulation. Ammerman and Packer scored the first two goals of game less than three minutes into the game and caged the Pride in their own defensive zone for most of the period, leaving the Pride scrambling to even the score up. Hilary Knight netted the first home goal for the Pride on power play while Elena Orlando served a two-minute minor for tripping, but Meghan Fardlemann put up another points for the Riveters less than a minute later. While Amanda Pelkey scored a power play goal for the Pride at the beginning of the second period, the Pride were unable to close the scoring gap.

The climate in the Bright-Landry Center throughout the second period and a scoreless third period was tense. A group of young players began to chant “Go Pride!” and another group attempted to start the wave. The crowd wasn’t only young girls and their families, nor Boston locals alone–adult Riveters fans from as close as my coffee shop and as far away as Mississippi were cheering for the away team as well. In women’s hockey, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of athletics to young women and how awesome women athletes can be as role models, but let’s face it: those sentiments aren’t much of an audience draw. The Boston Pride’s home opener was fun. Even watching them lose to the Riveters was incredible.

Speaking of the Riveters: those players are fast. The team I saw outskated the Pride for the duration of the third period and rocked their two-way play throughout. They held out against the Pride’s incredible offense–many who have played together for years–and won with 14 shots on goal to the Pride’s 43. Sure, having Nana Fujimoto in goal was key to this win–all three of the Riveters I spoke to stressed her dedication, skill, and commitment in transitioning from international ice to a smaller sheet–but all of the Riveters players who hit the ice contributed to that win.

At the beginning of the season, the Pride seemed the easy favorite of the NWHL. Many of the players came over from last year’s Clarkson-Cup-winning team, the Boston Blades of the CWHL, and five are part of Team USA. Hilary Knight, the most visible face of women’s hockey for the past few years, shares the captaincy with Brianna Decker, who currently leads the league in both points and goal scoring. The two wins with which the Pride opened the league weren’t surprising. The last two weeks have upset that leading edge, though. As the team heads into their first competition against the Connecticut Whale, who are leading the league, undefeated after four games, the Pride’s prestige hangs in jeopardy.

Pride defense Kacey Bellamy echoed my own thoughts after the game when she said, “Obviously, we hate losing, but [the Riveters] beating us twice, it’s good for the league. It’s good competition.” It’s good TV, too. I’d certainly rather watch the Pride fight their way to the top than coast to an easy victory. Judging by the other game that took place on Sunday, in which the Whale narrowly pulled off a shoot out win after the Buffalo Beauts came back from losing 1-5 to meeting the Whale 6-6 by the end of the second period, the Whale won’t will be able to rest on their laurels for long, either.

I can’t wait to watch what happens next.

The NWHL All-Star Game: It’s Happening

This month in the National Women’s Hockey League, team captains have been named, representatives to the NWHL Player’s Association have been voted in, and the Boston Pride’s TV deal with the New England Sports Network has been announced as the team gears up for their home opener against the New York Riveters on Sunday. Wow. That’s a lot. And we haven’t even made it to Black Friday, when the tickets to the inaugural NWHL All-Star Game will go on sale.

Buffalo’s HarborCenter will host the game during the weekend of January 23rd and 24th, 2016. Saturday night will feature a VIP Skate for the Stars; Sunday will feature a skills competition and a four-on-four game with two 20-minute periods. The Beauts’ Emily Pfalzer and Boston’s own Hilary Knight will captain the two All-Star teams, and the winning team will receive 20% of the profits from ticket sales. (To learn more about how your wallet is going to suffer in the name of professional women’s hockey, click over to NWHL.co.)

The press release issued this afternoon says that in early December, Pfalzer and Knight will select “11 of the 14 total players on their team from the full pool of NWHL players,” while fans will vote to fill the remaining two spots on each team via social media. Whether or not player selection means “press release” or “All-Star Draft” remains to be determined. Dani Rylan, you know what I want. What the people want. Put it on YouTube and give the last person to get drafted some Hot Wheels.

Boston Blades Appreciation Video: Calgary @ Boston, 10/31/2015

I started working on a highlights reel (forthcoming!) of the Boston Blades home opener last Saturday, but I kept being like “why, Calgary, augh!” and somehow this is what got finished first instead: a video which includes zero goals being scored by the opposing team. #journalism

[vimeo 144953757 w=500 h=276]

Blades Appreciation Life: Calgary @ Boston, 10/31/2015 from Erin Bartuska on Vimeo.

Boston Blades Home Opener: From Yankees to Red Sox

A Calgary Inferno player races Blades #16 Sarah Duncan toward #33 Genevieve Lacasse in the Blades Goal.
A Calgary Inferno player races Blades #16 Sarah Duncan toward #33 Genevieve Lacasse in the Blades Goal. From the Blades home opener on October 31 at New England Sports Center in Marlborough, MA.

First, let’s be frank: Last Saturday night’s home opener against the Calgary Inferno was a difficult game to watch if you were rooting for the home team. The Inferno scored seven goals, a boggling six of those during the second period, while the Blades remained scoreless throughout. The audience, crammed onto a narrow balcony high over the rink, seemed distant from the players, and the paltry media presence was a stark contrast to the NWHL’s media day in September. In the space of a few months, the Boston Blades have gone from the CWHL’s champions to the underdogs. They’re still hoisting the Clarkson Cup–the team posed for photos with the Cup before and after the game–but most of the players who won it this March are gone.

The NWHL went unmentioned in my conversations with general manager Krista Patronick and coach Brian McCloskey, as did the NWHL’s role in shakeup in the Blades’ formerly star-filled roster. The Blades have retained only five members of last year’s Clarkson Cup winning team: defense Tara Watchorn (this year’s captain) and Dru Burns, forwards Ashley Cottrell and Megan Myers, and goalie Genevieve Lacasse. The new league isn’t the only source of changes–Monique Lamoreaux has joined her sister Joceyln on the Minnesota Whitecaps, while Jenny Potter has transitioned to coaching–but it has claimed over half of last season’s roster, including all of Team USA’s active players. Both coach Digit Murphy and general manager Aronda Kirby have departed for the green fields of lacrosse after a less-than-amicable break with the Blades. As they enter a comprehensive and unanticipated rebuild, the Blades’ newest iteration has inherited both impossibly high expectations and a complicated relationship with the CWHL as its only US franchise.

The Boston Blades opened the 2015-2016 season at home on fresh ice at the New England Sports Center (NESC) in Marlborough, MA, which will be their home rink this season. GM Patronick said that the free parking, dedicated locker room, and improved connectivity offered by NESC were major incentives. There are, indeed, a lot of things to like about NESC–it’s a big facility with six indoor rinks, concessions, and an elevator-accessible upper floor which allows viewing from warmer/heated hallways. That said, Saturday’s game was displaced by the Beantown Fall Classic to Rink 6, which has no bleacher seating, only a long balcony that stretches the length of the rink. There were a few benches for seating, but the majority of people attending the game had to stand. From ice level, where I was filming throughout the game, it was hard to hear the fans or see them. The rink felt surreally empty.

Still, this doesn’t tell you much about the team’s play against Calgary. Calgary’s roster hasn’t experienced as much turnover, and they’ve been joined by the legendary Hayley Wickenheiser in her first year of CWHL play. The Inferno kept most of the play in the Blades’ zone for the duration of the game and they spent a lot of time scrapping around the crease. Despite their aggressive play, Calgary only racked up 2:00 PIM to Boston’s 8:00 by the end of the game. Lacasse’s net was unmoored twice during gameplay, once on either end of the rink; the Blades rarely got close enough to Delayne Brian to test the purchase of the net behind the Inferno’s crease. The Blades got 18 shots on goal, less than a third of the Inferno’s 60.

If they weren’t successful, the Blades were at least determined. Alternate captain Kristina Brown fistbumped each player as they stepped back onto the ice for the third period, exhorting her teammates to “Get some fire out there, get hungry.” Indeed, they finished out the final period without allowing another goal. Goaltender Lacasse deflected 53 of the 60 shots leveled on goal on Saturday. The Blades played a second game against Calgary at Tsongas Arena in Lowell at 10:30 on Sunday, during which Lacasse allowed only 4 of 50 shots. That’s a .900 SVP on 110 SOG in less than 24 hours.

What does this mean for the players who posed around the Clarkson Cup on Saturday night? These Blades are playing against the odds, that’s for sure–against four Canadian teams whose rosters haven’t received a massive shakeup, under the shadow of a hotshot new league with a franchise in the same city, and without most of the players who lifted the Cup in March. Replicating that success will be an uphill success, and it won’t happen overnight. That said, some of those expectations rest on an underlying assumption that Blades’ past success was solely on the merits of their players. When the Blades became the pinnacle of elite women’s hockey talent in the United States as the Western Women’s Hockey League dissolved, there were no alternative professional teams for US-based players who had outlasted their time as NCAA to play and continue to develop. Only the best and brightest stars of women’s hockey–and those with the financial resources and spare time to devote to the sport without pay–could land a place on the Blades’ roster. While it’s tempting to frame the relationship between the NWHL and the CWHL as a rivalry (and, indeed, the one between the Pride and the Blades), the reality is more complex. Going from one professional women’s hockey team in the US to six will only grow (eventually) both the sport and the field of players from which both leagues can pick for their rosters. I’m excited to see how this season’s players develop on the ice. That doesn’t mean that the Blades are poised to capture the Clarkson cup this year, or even the next.

Fortunately for the Blades, Boston loves underdogs.

The Boston Pride Finds Victory, I Bake Pie

On Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, Manon Rhéaume dropped the first puck in the history of the Boston Pride. In Boston, I had just put my Pride-themed pie into the oven and set up my friend Kate’s TV to stream the game. Unlike the path that led to the National Women’s Hockey League’s successive puck drops in Connecticut and New York, my own itinerary for the day was simple: two friends, two games, one pie.

Laden with supplies, we arrived at Kate’s house at 1pm. Half an hour seemed like enough time for me to set up the livestream for the inaugural match between the New York Riveters and the Connecticut Whale, and the following two hours would be plenty for us to get through food prep before it was time for our team to play. We’d both spent the past month checking the NWHL’s site for more information about the Cross-Ice Pass and growing nervous as October 11th approached with no clarification in sight. Thankfully, getting the YouTube stream set up was a breeze. We cleared a space for my laptop and started washing potatoes and carrots for lentil stew, our concession to the sad fact we’re adults who share our pie instead of consuming the whole thing for dinner.

I don’t cry easily (someone usually has to die on TV), but I had to pause mid-carrot peel when Dani Rylan stepped out on the ice. I gripped the carrot and peeler in my hands while she placed the puck on my ice and through the first few minutes of the game. After all the anticipation—from #KnightWatch to the first NWHL draft to waiting for my Pride sweatshirt to show up in the mail (still waiting, I hope it gets here before I go on vacation)—it was incredible to see everyone out on the ice, suited up in their new jerseys, ready to rumble. Kate cried, and not because of the onions she was chopping.

We made it through the rest of food prep on autopilot, our eyes drifting between our food and the game. Fortunately, I’ve made a lot of pies. I switched from carrots to apples halfway through the first period, peeling while Kate chopped. We had a mix of Cortlands from Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow and Granny Smiths from Whole Foods, tart apples that pair beautifully with a butter crust and a little sugar. The stream had a few pauses for buffering, but nothing too distracting; pie assembly was equally uneventful, aside from Kate having to remind me to include salt in the crust. I wove a lattice on top and covered it with egg yolk; I used the egg white to coat three slashes of dough before I covered them in cinnamon sugar. The Connecticut Whale was owning the game, but the Pride owned this pie. We hoped they’d follow suit on the ice.

Transition between games wasn’t as simple. The Whale and the Riveters were still finishing out the third period when the clock hit 3.30, around the same time the oven started smoking. I had to abandon Kate to clean up the drip so I could figure out where on earth the Pride vs Beauts game was as well as audio input for her TV. Ultimately, I searched for the Beauts on YouTube and found the stream. Kate got the oven clean and the pie inside. Success!

The part you may or may not have been waiting for, depending on how many recaps of the game you’ve already read and how hungry for pie you are: the game was amazing. Kate and I were surprised by the lack of commentary, but Twitter was there for us in our time of need, and we spent a large portion of the game yelling “#KNIGHTTRICK” after Hilary Knight scored the first two goals for the Pride, the second off an assist from Kacey Bellamy.

“Should I get a Hilary Knight jersey?” Kate asked after goal number two, the NWHL shop open on her laptop. I was, of course, paying close attention to the game out of interest in joy, personal betterment, and subsequently writing for this blog. “Or will everyone have that one?”

“You should get Brittany Ott,” I said of #29, presently slaying in goal. “She is amazing, and goalies! So important! I hope that when she gets her new pads, they’re also blue.” Make an aesthetic commitment, @b_ott29, and also thank me for that jersey sale.

Into the net went a third goal from Jordan Smolker (assisted by Alyssa Gagliardi and Brianna Decker); out of the oven came pie (assisted by Kate’s woven potholders). The pie was beautiful, crisp, and I wanted to put in my mouth immediately. Alas, it was too hot, so I settled for a motivational post on Twitter.

Amanda Pelkey got the Pride’s fourth goal of the game, with an assist from Kacey Bellamy, and I yelled a lot while Kate stirred the lentil stew. Pelkey was the first player to sign with the NWHL, and it just seemed fitting that she cap off her team’s first game in the league with a goal as well. Also, Pelkey got a fan for the media sweltering in the press conference room at Allied Veterans Memorial Arena last month, so I am now a fan myself and think she should get all goals, forever, and also pie.

The audience that filled HarborCenter in Buffalo was cheering for the Beauts from start to finish (except for that guy in the Moligny jersey sitting by the camera who left in the middle of the third period—I’m judging you), and they were rewarded by a powerplay goal from Kelley Steadman in the third period that proved the final goal for the game. Kate and I cheered for that goal, too. While it was awesome to see our team kick butt, we were even happier to see teams that looked competitive, especially because the Pride is loaded with top-tier talent.

So ended Game Day #1 for the NWHL, with my team jubilant, my pie in hand, and my butt parked on my BFF’s couch. I can’t wait to see the Pride play in person, but I’m glad I had this experience, too. For the NWHL to succeed, the league needs more fans than just those who can attend in person—it needs people all around the world to watch.

Victory Pie
Crust:
2 c flour
1.5 c cold butter
pinch salt
7~8 tsp chilled water

Filling:
7-8 small apples or 6-7 larger ones
~1 tbsp of citric acid (optional)
~2 tsp cinnamon
~1/2 tsp ginger
~1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 c sugar
1/4 c flour
4 pats of butter

Glaze:
1 egg
~1 tsp cinnamon
~1 tbsp sugar

note: “~” = “approximately” = “I eyeball it.”

1. CRUST: PART ONE. Seriously, just follow the Smitten Kitchen tutorial to make the dough, but use these ingredients. Then roll out half of this dough, put it into a clean pie dish, cover with plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge. Cover the other half of dough with plastic wrap and also put it in the fridge.

2. FILLING. Peel apples. Cut them into thin wedges. Toss them with the citric acid as you go to keep them from browning/oxidizing. Shake some spices over your apples. Add sugar and flour (the flour will absorb some of the juices so your pie isn’t a lake). Scoop apples into your pie crust with a slotted spoon to minimize transfer of extra liquid. Then lay four pats of butter on top of the apples.

3. CRUST: PART TWO. Roll out your extra dough and cut out a bunch of 1 cm” strips. Weave into lattice. Use extra strips to circle pie. Crimp edge with fork. Then cut three slash marks out of remaining dough and set aside.

4. CRUST: PART THREE. Mix cinnamon and sugar for glaze on a plate. Separate egg. Brush egg yolk on lattice and edge of crust. Then cover slash marks with egg white before dredging through cinnamon sugar. Put them on pie. Feel fancy.

5. BAKE. 375F for 40-50 min, until crust is golden brown and apples yield easily to a knife.

6. LET COOL. Yes, this pie looks great, but the inside is apple lava.

7. IT’S COOL ENOUGH, OKAY. Don’t come crying to me when you burn your mouth, but sure.

8. EAT. Top with ice cream or sour cream whipped with powdered sugar.