Buffalo Beauts at the 2016 NWHL All-Star Game

Buffalo Beauts general manager Linda Mroz’s best hockey memory involves, of all teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs. She was able to attend the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and meet legends of the sport, like Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada, and one of her heroes, Leafs great Doug Gilmour.

She remembers the feeling of awe upon being able to see a player she idolized from afar, in the flesh in front of her. And she still remains grateful to the Sittler family, who was able to bring her to the game and make that evening one she won’t ever forget.

On Jan. 24, Mroz was able to make that feeling a reality for a group of under-14 girls’ hockey players who had competed for the Harborcenter Cup ahead of the NWHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition, asking Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan to meet and take photos with the star-struck girls.

“They were over the moon,” she said of the girls’ responses. “They couldn’t stop thanking me and the players. It was unbelievable to be able to give these girls that feeling of meeting their heroes.”

Having those heroes be women, finally, after decades of fighting for representation and a level playing field for the sport, made it even better. That’s what Mroz is working for, as the GM for one of the Founding Four teams in the National Women’s Hockey League — among other things, a chance to give young female players in Western New York and beyond the chance to see, and be, their own role models.

Eight Beauts players participated in All-Star Weekend on Jan. 23 and 24, which included a media day and a “Skate with the Stars” session at Harborcenter Saturday before the on-ice events Sunday. The names included Olympians Meghan Duggan, Megan Bozek and Brianne McLaughlin, as well as rising homegrown talent like Emily Pfalzer (who served as a captain of her own team) and fan picks Devon Skeats and Hayley Williams.

For any hockey player, the opportunity to represent your team amongst the cream of the crop of your league is one that should rarely if ever be passed up.

But the Beauts All-Stars got an added bonus by playing in their own rink, Harborcenter, in downtown Buffalo. That meant showing off their shots, hands, and speed in front of a crowd with a large number of their own fans, not to mention enjoying the creature comforts within their facility.

“We’re all more used to playing here than anywhere else,” Kelley Steadman said of Harborcenter. “We also have the best fanbase in the league, by far, so being at a rink you’re comfortable with in front of your home fans was awesome.”

It was certainly home sweet home for Steadman, who won the shooting accuracy contest for Team Pfalzer and then took the MVP award with two goals in the two-period 4-on-4. But she wasn’t the only Beaut who shined on the ice — Devon Skeats skated an impressive 13.06 seconds in the fastest skater and also scored on a wild diving play for Team Pfalzer, while Hayley Williams scored the lone goal for Team Knight, who got steamrolled, 9-1.

Meanwhile, Meghan Duggan and Megan Bozek duked it out for the hardest shot, with Duggan maxing out at 80 miles per hour and Bozek taking the prize with an incredible 88 mph slapper. Brianne McLaughlin had a solid performance in net for Team Knight despite being on the losing end, and in doing so, she had an entertaining duel with good friend Steadman.

“We play together every day at RMU [Robert Morris University, where both work], and we’re around each other all the time, so going in we knew there would be a duel,” Steadman said of the showdown. Eventually, Steadman got the last laugh with a goal on McLaughlin.

Meanwhile, the other Beauts on the ice were having just as much fun. Skeats, who was voted into one of the final four All-Star spots by the fans, said she and her teammates were having a blast making up goal celebrations (and indeed, she ended up taking part in the hilarious “grenade” celly started by goal scorer Emily Field).

“The whole weekend was an incredible experience, and I am so happy I could have been a part of it,” she said via email.

Williams, also a vote-in, said it was an “amazing feeling” to be able to play with the best in the league.

“The majority of my Beauts teammates were on Pfalzer’s team, so to be able to build friendships [with some of the other players] was great,” she said.

Williams has also been building an affinity with the city of Buffalo; she shares an apartment here with four of her teammates, including Skeats, and both are enjoying what the 716 has to offer.

“Everyone’s very nice here, very welcoming,” Williams said. “Buffalo’s such a big hockey town, but small enough to really hype up [the women’s game] and get people here.”

Although the crowd at the All-Star Game wasn’t Harborcenter’s largest (about 1,000 people in an 1,800-capacity arena), the fans who showed up were loud and passionate, according to everyone who was on the ice.

“We all wanted to give the fans a good show, and I think we did just that,” Skeats said of the fans’ reaction overall.

But this was as much for the players and the league as much as it was for the fans, and Mroz did her best to ensure they had everything they needed. She called planning the fundraising dinner held the Friday before All-Star Weekend “like planning a wedding without the benefit of the cash at the end of the night.” A few calls to friends for raffle basket donations and other bits helped out — “Buffalo really is a city of good neighbors,” she said — and NWHL sponsor Dunkin’ Donuts also pitched in by donating hundreds of donuts decked out with the league’s branding.

From there, it was making sure everything was set down to the smallest details for the rest of the weekend, from the Skate with the Stars event Saturday night to the actual on-ice festivities — including having Seymour Knox IV, whose family brought professional hockey to Buffalo, drop the puck.

“That was my favorite moment,” Mroz recalled of the ceremonial puck drop. “It was awesome to talk to him about the growth of hockey, especially women’s hockey, here in Buffalo. He was so excited to be here, cheering on the players during the skills competition and everything.”

Having an icon of hockey in the 716 in the building was the cherry on top of an incredible opportunity to show off all the progress Buffalo’s made so far in becoming both a hub for the sport and a resurgent city.

“It was a chance to showcase the Harborcenter to everyone — not just to the women coming here, but to show everyone what Buffalo is all about,” Mroz said, referring to the continued development of Buffalo’s waterfront and downtown. Canalside, directly adjacent to Harborcenter, has been the site of plenty of events year-round, and businesses and traffic are starting to be more of a presence again along the city’s main drags. (For a bit more information on Buffalo’s attractions, check out my piece prior to the All-Star Game on what to do while you’re here.)

The appeal of Buffalo as a hockey hub in particular wasn’t lost on NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan, who said during media availability at the All-Star Game that having a presence in the Queen City wasn’t even a question.

“Buffalo was a no-brainer for us when we were picking our Founding Four teams, and it was a no-brainer again for our All-Star Game,” she said. “The Harborcenter does such a great job of hosting events, and the city of Buffalo is a hockey town — they’re so passionate here… when we were looking at our schedule for the All-Star Game, we didn’t even have a backup.”

That assuredness proved to be a great moment for Mroz, an Amherst native and coach of the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association girls’ varsity hockey team when not managing the Beauts. Though she stopped playing before the NWHL transpired, being a part of it in such an executive way brings a special thrill.

“In high school I was voted most likely to be on parole,” she joked. “To be the general manager of an NWHL team is unbelievable.

“Twenty years ago, this was unheard of. Now, I have sophomores, juniors, seniors who I can see pushing into playing in college, and who might one day be playing for me in about six years or so… For young athletes able to make it to the game and see the talent these women have, they’re able to have actual heroes now. I think it’s pretty amazing.”

Buffalo Beauts Notebook: Weekend of January 31st, 2016

The Buffalo Beauts had their first win on home ice Sunday January 31st against the New York Riveters, beating them 4-2. Shelby Bram’s second goal of the year won it for the Beauts, and Erin Zach added an empty netter late in the third. Brianne McLaughlin made 20 saves. Kelley Steadman scored twice and added an assist, earning her a second NWHL Player of the Week nod.

Stats and Facts:

  • Bram’s goal was her first in five games, dating back to Dec. 6 at Connecticut when she scored a power-play goal to put the Beauts up 2-0 (Buffalo would go on to lose the game 3-2 in a shootout after a late rally by the Whale).
  • By getting Player of the Week for her play against the Rivs, Steadman becomes the first NWHLer to earn the honor twice in one season.

 

Tidbits:

  • Shortly before puck drop Sunday, Hannah Bevis of Today’s Slapshot boosted a piece she wrote about the chemistry between Steadman and Meghan Duggan in just five games played together. Ironically, the duo was split up for the first time this season against the Riveters. Co-head coach Shelley Looney said after the game that the aim was to create three strong lines, so Duggan played alongside Jessica Fickel and Shelby Bram, while Steadman was on a line with Hayley Williams in Tatiana Rafter’s spot. Of course, Duggan did manage to combine with Steadman on the power play for Steadman’s first goal of the game.
  • The second line of Devon Skeats, Kourtney Kunichika, and Hailey Browne was untouched, due to what Looney called a “strong run” this season. Although the line didn’t have a point in last Sunday’s game, they cycled the puck well and crashed the net on multiple occasions, proving they still have plenty of chemistry.
  • Kunichika on playing with Skeats and Browne: “It’s a fast pace. They’re both really strong and really fast, and we seem to just kind of know where each other [is]… When we get deep and start cycling it, we can be unstoppable.”
  • Rafter, who was Princess Elsa for the day in honor of Disney on Ice being in town, was a healthy scratch. The forward has one goal and 12 penalty minutes in 13 games played. Earlier in the season, co-head coach Ric Seiling mentioned the purpose of practice players was to ensure there would be a full lineup in case of injury or outside obligation, but seeing as Rafter was healthy and present, it’s obvious the only thing keeping her from the lineup was lack of production compared with Steadman’s consistent success. So… the real deal regarding practice players remains to be seen.
  • Also a result of Disney Day: old favorites and forgotten gems from Disney movies on the PA system throughout the game. I was super excited to hear “Be Prepared” before puck drop, not going to lie.

Buffalo Beauts Earn First Home Win, 4-2 vs. New York Riveters

The HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo witnessed a little bit of history long in the making as the Buffalo Beauts finally earned their first home win of the season, 4-2, against the New York Riveters Sunday afternoon.

Shelby Bram redirected a shot by Megan Bozek to break a 2-2 tie halfway through the third period, eventually allowing the Beauts to break their tie with New York in the standings as well. They take sole possession of third place with the regulation win (10 points overall).

“It feels really good,” Kourtney Kunichika said after the game. “We kinda got that monkey off our backs… We’re just happy our hard work paid off.”

All-Star MVP Kelley Steadman started the scoring off with two power-play goals in the first period, including one of them with just 3.3 seconds left in the frame. The Beauts dictated the play the entire period, outshooting the Riveters 18-5 and getting lots of looks in on Nana Fujimoto.

While New York had a few chances, it spent much of the opening frame in its own end, hemmed in by good plays in the neutral zone or along the blueline. The Riveters also spent a good chunk of time in the penalty box — in fact, Steadman’s first goal was on a 5 on 3 after first Gabie Figueroa and then Celeste Brown went off with minor infractions.

Then in the second, the Beauts got a “little overconfident” in head coach Shelley Looney’s words, leading to a number of chances going the other way for the Riveters. Beth Hanrahan cut the lead in half after a bad turnover on an attempted clear, putting the puck high over Brianne McLaughlin’s shoulder.

There were a few defensive breakdowns like this for Buffalo, whether failing to catch the Riveters on the rush or giving them too much space around the net. McLaughlin had a few juicy rebounds that just missed Riveters’ sticks as well. Overall, the period was much more evenly played, with the Riveters having the better of the chances.

Looney said she reminded her team during the second intermission to play defense first.

“I felt like we were always on the offensive side of the puck waiting to rush, rush, rush, because we knew when we get into their zone we’re going to have a lot of opportunities,” she said. “But you’ve got to take care of one job first, and that’s getting it out of the zone.”

Bray Ketchum took New York one step closer to completing the comeback with another high shot on McLaughlin at 6:10 of the third period to tie it. However, the Beauts were able to regroup, play defense, and get extended time in the offensive zone. It paid off soon enough; with Bram floating in the middle, Bozek threw a laser to the net that Bram didn’t miss.

“Bozek has the hardest shot in the league, so I knew I had to get in front of the net,” Bram said, joking that Bozek had told her she was the only one brave enough to get in front of Bozek’s shot (clocked at 88 mph at last Sunday’s All-Star Skills Competition).

“She’s an unbelievable player, a heads-up player… and just all around very smart, so playing with her is definitely an honor,” she went on about her teammate, with whom she also combined for both assists on Steadman’s second goal of the game.

Erin Zach added an empty net goal for insurance (her first of the season and in the league), and the Beauts came away with a crucial two points.

While it’s highly unlikely the Beauts will catch either Connecticut or Boston with four more games to go, the last few games of the season will determine which team will play host to them come playoff time. Being third or fourth is the difference between playing a team that has somehow escaped the loss column against them thus far, versus playing a team they’ve managed to beat. But either way, it’ll be a test Kunichika believes her team is equal to, provided everyone buys in.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead, but I think if we play our game, we’re focused, we play defense, and we just trust each other, I think we’ll have a good run,” she said.

The last stretch before playoffs continues with a road game next Sunday against Connecticut. Puck drop is listed as noon EST, and the venue is yet to be determined. Stay tuned for more on that and more Beauts coverage throughout the week.

NWHL All-Star Weekend A Blast, Team Pfalzer Dominates

The National Women’s Hockey League celebrated its brightest stars with its All-Star Festivities last Saturday and Sunday, culminating in the All-Star Game and Skills Competition Sunday at the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo.

Buffalo Beauts defender Emily Pfalzer’s team dominated Boston Pride forward Hilary Knight’s squad, 9-1, sweeping the Skills Competition and cleaning up in the two-period scrimmage.

It was a banner day for Beauts players, as Kelley Steadman scored two goals, earning the game’s MVP award. Devon Skeats added a goal for Team Pfalzer and Hayley Williams got the lone goal for Team Knight.

The on-ice celebrations began with the Skills Competition, which included four events — shooting accuracy, fastest skater, breakaway challenge, and hardest shot. All three shooters for Team Pfalzer beat the shooters for Team Knight (in fact, Steadman hit all four targets); meanwhile, during the hardest shot, Megan Bozek topped out at 88 miles per hour to take that event for her Beauts teammate.

Meanwhile, the game was at once fun and fast-paced, as both teams were determined to put on a good show for the fans. Steadman broke through first for Team Pfalzer off a pass from Meghan Duggan, and from there it was a strong showing from the players in blue, including goals by Boston’s Emily Field and Shiann Darkangelo of Connecticut.

Team Knight did have its opportunities; Kelli Stack hit two posts, and Knight herself had a number of chances stopped first by Nana Fujimoto, then by Brittany Ott. But aside from Williams’ five-hole tally on McLaughlin early in the second, nothing else stuck.

Meanwhile, Steadman pushed hard for her second goal, jostling with McLaughlin (one of her best friends) multiple times. At one point, McLaughlin jumped up and mugged Steadman after a few excellent saves in a row. Steadman had the last laugh, though, jamming the puck in on the rebound late in the second.

“It was a blast,” Steadman said afterward of the chance to play against McLaughlin. “We knew going into it that we were going to play against each other, and we just wanted to have a good time with it.”

The entire atmosphere was lively and fun; players took plenty of selfies and tried their best to pump up the crowd. Kaleigh Fratkin of the Connecticut Whale wore a chicken head during warmups and her attempt in the breakaway challenge, while her teammate Jaimie Leonoff donned a 70s-era cop hat and shades. After the game, during the handshake line, McLaughlin snuck up and nailed Ott in the face with a pie, drawing cheers and laughter from her teammates and the crowd.

Fun was definitely in the forefront for the players, who signed autographs and interacted with fans afterward. NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan emphasized the festivities, particularly the skills competition, as a way for players to showcase both their abilities and their personalities.

“At the end of the day, everyone started playing the game for fun,” she said shortly after the skills competition ended. “It’s still a competition, we still want there to be a winner — you know, that’s part of the game too — but to see the players having fun, it does mean a lot.”

Despite the lopsided score, both teams managed to find the weekend entertaining. Knight said the skills competition being added to the overall score made it difficult to catch up, but she enjoyed being able to play with players she doesn’t normally get to.

“We were stretching before we went out on the ice and we were like, ‘This is awesome,’” she said. “We need to collaborate league-wide and have more events like this.”

What To Do In Buffalo While You’re Waiting For The NWHL All-Star Game

So you want to go to the NWHL All-Star Game. You’ve got your tickets, your jersey, and you check to see where it’ll be. And you realize it’s in Buffalo, New York.

I know, I know. If there’s anyone who KNOWS what people say about this town, it’s me, because I hear them say it every time I mention where I’m from and where I’m living now. “You moved from BROOKLYN… THERE?”

Yeah. I get it. A fraction of the population, ten times the snow, and nothing to do. Right?

Well… not really.

In the six years I’ve lived here (seriously, I can’t believe it’s been that long), I’ve heard Buffalo referred to as “wasteland,” “Southern Canada,” you name it. I’ve also seen it undergo a subtle transformation from the snowy little speed bump you pass on your way to Niagara Falls and Toronto, to a city with somewhat higher aspirations.

That doesn’t mean Buffalo has its issues; there are many, and a lot of them deal with things largely outside the realm of hockey (like jobs, gentrification, etc.). But you don’t care about any of that right now — you just want to know what there is to do before and after the All-Star Game. Well, you’re in luck.

  • First of all, there’s plenty of food options. Right inside the HarborCenter building (which is easily accessible from the train station, bus depot, and a short drive down the 33 from the airport), you have (716), the hot spot for pre- and post-game eats and drinks. I’ve been a couple of times, and I’m actually going to have my birthday party there in a couple of weeks. The drinks and atmosphere kind of make up for the food, in my opinion (that isn’t to say the food is bad — it’s just okay). But once you get a load of the giant screen you can check out games on, I think you’ll be sold.
  • If (716) isn’t for you, check out Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, located just a short walk down from the arena. This place has excellent food and pretty good beers (the Blue-Eyed Blueberry Blonde and Don Cherry Cherry Wheat are my favorites).
  • In fact, there are plenty of brewery options in Buffalo, which prides itself on local products (just look at Beauts captain Emily Pfalzer, a native of nearby Getzville). Big Ditch on East Huron, Resurgence on Niagara Street, and Flying Bison on Seneca Street are all close by. I’ve heard tell Big Ditch has more variety and great food in addition to their beer, while Resurgence and Flying Bison offer cool snacks to pair with your brews. (Resurgence also plays pretty great music — I took my friend Maria there and that night they had R&B and hip hop jams that took me right back to middle school.)
  • If you fancy braving the cold and snow for a walk along the water, Canalside is the place to be. Buffalo’s made awesome use of the space during the winter, offering fitness classes and public skating, among other things. Last weekend was Canalside’s Chillabration, featuring live entertainment and food on top of everything else it has to offer. During the summer, there are concerts, boot camp, yoga, Pilates, Zumba, and tons of water activities on the canal. Their Fourth of July celebrations are also lots of fun.
  • Walk a bit further down and you’ll find the Naval and Military Park, which features three ships, a museum, and the Liberty Hound, a cool little pub. Right now, the Park is closed to tours until March, but you can still take some pretty sweet photos with the giant ships in the background.
  • Finally, Buffalo RiverWorks over on Ganson Street has everything — sports, food and drink — under one roof. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s looking gorgeous. Oh, and did I mention you can also catch roller derby there? Yeah, Buffalo has FREAKIN’ ROLLER DERBY. Get excited.
  • If you’d like to explore outside of downtown, there are a couple of great neighborhoods developed around some of Buffalo’s main drags. The Delaware District features some of the beautiful mansions millionaires once lived in; Allentown, the heart of Buffalo’s LGBTQ community, features some cool variety stores and art galleries; and the Elmwood Village has everything from bookstores and boutiques to bars and even a little greenery in the form of Bidwell Park. Also, don’t overlook Grant Street — it features two of my favorite used bookstores, Rust Belt Books and West Side Stories, plus a ton of cool shops owned by a diverse group of entrepreneurs. Buffalo has a growing refugee population, and Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), Inc., has done a lot to help support them and their businesses.

I realize now that I could go on for quite a bit about the stuff Buffalo has to offer, because believe it or not, it’s quite a bit. This place is small and a little out of the game, but it’s full of pride and willingness to prove itself — kind of like its NWHL team.

Anyway, if you do decide to make a weekend of it, consider checking out the stuff listed above, and don’t be afraid to do a bit of your own digging. And of course, don’t miss puck drop for the All-Star Game at 2 p.m. sharp at HarborCenter.

Kunichika line shines, Buffalo Beauts top Riveters in shootout

A wild third period comeback led to a game-winner by captain Emily Pfalzer, as the Buffalo Beauts prevailed over the New York Riveters, 6-5 in the shootout.

Pfalzer threw in a couple of head fakes to move goaltender Jenny Scrivens before cutting to her left, putting a high backhand over Scrivens’ blocker side, for the winner.

The game had started out in Buffalo’s favor as they came flying out of the gate, dominating puck possession and peppering Scrivens with 13 shots to New York’s six. The line centered by Kourtney Kunichika especially shone, as Kunichika, Hailey Browne and Devon Skeats maintained possession heading into the zone and drove hard to the net, often including a trailer to pick up potential rebounds. It was Kunichika who tipped the puck past Scrivens to put the Beauts up 1-0 6:48 into the opening frame.

Lyudmila Belyakova potted a rebound by Beauts netminder Kim Sass to tie it midway through the period, but six minutes later, Megan Bozek aimed a bomb of a shot at the back of the net, making it 2-1 heading into the second.

That was when it all fell apart for Buffalo. A parade to the penalty box by the Beauts led to a slaughter on the skater-advantage for the Riveters, who scored four goals in the period (three of them on the power play). Bray Ketchum and Morgan Fritz-Ward tallied two apiece, taking advantage of the Beauts’ frustration and some key rebounds by Sass, who was replaced by Brianne McLaughlin before the period ended. The Riveters also had two goals in a row disallowed, one due to a high-stick, and the other to a quick whistle. Later in the period, the Beauts got a couple of looks in on Scrivens; Erin Zach in particular had a great chance, flying in on a breakaway, but was stopped by Scrivens’ blocker. The Riveters goalie finished with 21 saves.

But Buffalo slowly mounted a comeback over the final period. Pfalzer started things off, moving deep into the offensive zone and putting away a beautiful pass by Shelby Bram. Then Tatiana Rafter put the Beauts within one. Finally, Kunichika brought the regulation scoring full-circle on a net-crashing play (something her line thrives on). McLaughlin kept her team alive with some key saves, while Scrivens also tried her best to ensure at least one point for her squad.

After an exciting OT that saw a couple of chances on both sides, the game went to the skills competition. Brooke Ammerman drew first blood for the Riveters, but McLaughlin stopped the final two shooters for New York, while Shelby Bram tied the shootout score and Pfalzer put the game away.

This game highlighted the importance of the Beauts sticking to their game, which (despite their best intentions) is not overly physical. The longer they spend in the penalty box, the more flustered and less effective they seem to be, whereas by simply using their speed and being smart about their positioning, they succeed. This was not necessarily a game that needed a shootout to decide it, or at least it wouldn’t have if the Beauts kept their feet moving and their wits about them. However, they managed to regroup and get the extra point, and McLaughlin did an incredible job in relief (9 saves). Here’s to hoping it isn’t quite so hard to hang onto the two points next time.

Speaking of next time, it won’t be until two weekends from now. The NWHL All-Star Game is slated for next Sunday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m. at HarborCenter. It will feature some of the best and biggest names in the league (including eight Beauts). Tickets are $25, and it will also be streamed via Cross-Ice Pass. Stay tuned for more All-Star coverage as the week progresses.

Buffalo Beauts Stumble And Fall to the Connecticut Whale, 5-3

The Buffalo Beauts stumbled out of the gate early and never quite recovered, losing to the Connecticut Whale 5-3 Sunday evening at Chelsea Piers.

Yekaterina Smolentseva’s two goals in the first period, as well as a tally by Danielle Ward, set the tone, as Buffalo’s offense struggled to break into the offensive zone and its defense couldn’t support Amanda Makela. Kelli Stack also scored a pair for the Whale, while Kelley Steadman (two goals) and Meghan Duggan kept the score close.

What Went Right For The Beauts:

  • I hate sounding like a broken record, but Steadman just makes this team better, even if only by her own individual effort. Her second goal was a thing of beauty as she charged into the zone, going wide on her defender and protecting the puck beautifully before poking it past Nicole Stock. That said, she also gave Duggan a really good look for her goal. She’s so strong on the puck and skates with tons of power, and is formidable alongside Duggan.
  • Recovery. The Beauts did have a good second and third compared to their first, with shot totals closer than expected (36-32 Whale at the end of the night). At one point, it looked as though Steadman had brought the game to within one at the start of the second period, but a (very) quick whistle kept that from happening. Still, the Beauts got their speed back and tried hard to generate chances off the rush (their specialty).
  • Emily Pfalzer didn’t score a goal, but came close numerous times, including a beautiful end-to-end rush later in the game (I believe it was late in the second). Her speed and puck moving skills were on fine display against the Whale Sunday.
    Despite allowing five goals, Amanda Makela had a strong game, keeping the Beauts in it for as long as she could. She finished with 31 saves.

What Went Wrong For The Beauts:

  • That first period. Although the Beauts came out of it only down 12-10 in shots, it didn’t seem very close at all aside from end to end action to start the game. The Whale had a lot of time and space to work with, resulting in three goals before the end of the frame, two of them from the right side. Smolentseva in particular had an easy go of the Beauts defense, assisting on Ward’s goal and scoring twice more.
  • Passing decisions. More than once I found myself asking, “Why are you passing there?” or, “Who was that going to?” Whether it was a telegraphed stretch pass with two Whale players in the lane or a drop pass to an unsuspecting linemate, it wasn’t smart, wasn’t clean and certainly wasn’t effective.
  • Special teams. The Beauts had (if I’m counting correctly) eight power play opportunities and didn’t make good on any of them, not even a five-on-three in the third immediately after Kelli Stack’s second goal that would have pulled them back to within one. The Whale also managed to get one power-play goal and one shorthanded goal (Stack’s first), dominating possession even with a player in the box. They were stronger on the puck and got better looks in on Makela than Buffalo did on Stock.
  • Shot quality and net presence. Steadman can drive with ease, Pfalzer is slippery and can sneak through opposing D, but all of this is on transition. The Beauts had a tough time getting in close on Stock, relying on lucky chips at bad angles to try to get something to stick. Maybe it’s because they’re a smaller team; maybe they didn’t want to take more penalties (because they already took quite a few). Either way, it showed.

Odds and Ends:

  • On the ice, these teams are not friends; the penalty sheet was littered with cross-checks and roughing calls. However, the Beauts and Whale put their in-game bad blood aside to take a photo at center ice with their helmets arranged in a “14” shape for injured Boston Pride forward Denna Laing. Good stuff.
  • It was a night for Kell(y)(ey)(ie)s on both teams. Kelly Babstock tallied an assist, Kelli Stack had two goals, and Kelley Steadman finished with three points. The final Whale goal was fun to read: Kelli Stack, from Kelly Babstock and KALEIGH Fratkin. Little things, guys.
  • I like the look of the Skeats-Kunichika-Browne line. All three have speed; Skeats has a bit more finesse, but all of them grind it out, and it’s fun to watch them generate opportunities.
  • Kate Cimini of Today’s Slapshot has what could be the quote of the season from Steadman:

The Beauts play next against the New York Riveters Sunday at Aviator Sports and Events Complex. Puck drop is at 7 p.m. EST. You can watch via NWHL Cross-Ice Pass.

New York Riveters Roll Over the Buffalo Beauts, 7-3

The miserable weather in the Buffalo area Sunday afternoon perfectly mirrored the outcome at HarborCenter, as the New York Riveters rolled over the Buffalo Beauts, 7-3. Meghan Fardelmann scored a hat trick, and Janine Weber and Lyudmila Belyakova scored two apiece, while Nana Fujimoto made 32 saves.

Buffalo iced just 12 skaters against the Riveters, as those with commitments to Team USA — Emily Pfalzer, Meghan Duggan, and Megan Bozek — were at evaluation camp for the Women’s World Championship. Shelby Bram was also away due to playing with Team Canada at the Nations Cup in Europe, while Kelly McDonald sat out for reasons unconfirmed (but potentially injury-related).

Head coach Shelley Looney also had to juggle her lines as a result, placing three forwards — Jessica Fickel, practice forward Annmarie Cellino, and Tatiana Rafter — on the blueline. While they did as well as they could have, jumping into play and moving the puck well in transition, there were momentary lapses in play where New York was able to thread through both defenders and score quickly, illustrating just how important both Bozek and Pfalzer are to this Beauts squad.

“We had [Lindsay] Grigg and Paige Harrington, our two D, running every other shift, and the three forwards basically rotating through that second slot,” Cellino said. “I noticed my legs were pretty much gone at about 10 minutes into the second period. Once you got that rest in the intermission, that was huge.”

The first period was relatively tame, unless you count the shower of stuffed animals from the stands after Buffalo scored its first goal for the Teddy Bear Toss, benefiting a local charity. Janine Weber had turned on the jets and burned two Beauts on her way to her first goal of the season, to put the Riveters up 1-0. But a couple of minutes later, Kelley Steadman responded with her own solo effort on the power play, tallying her seventh and making it rain fur over the glass. A late goal by Meghan Fardelmann put a damper on the Beauts’ good vibes, however, and they ended the first frame down 2-1.

The second period was all Riveters. Belyakova led the charge with her two goals (also her first two of the year) as New York pulled away, scoring three straight and chasing Brianne McLaughlin from the net for the third time this season. Fardelmann scored again as well, as New York took advantage of a depleted and tired Beauts defense, rushing hard and crashing the net on both McLaughlin and her reliever, Amanda Makela. The two teams also got increasingly physical, with at least one of Belyakova’s goals coming at the tail end of borderline interference calls.

A shot by Kourtney Kunichika banked off either Fujimoto or her defender, Gabie Figueroa, to make it 5-2 before the second intermission started. But by this point, with the Beauts running out of steam, another comeback seemed unlikely.

In the third, the Beauts were able to get back on par with the Riveters possession-wise, but only one more goal — a backhand floater by Devon Skeats — found its way past Fujimoto. Fardelmann completed her hat trick, earning herself the second star of the night (behind Steadman, the teddy bear goal scorer). Makela finished her evening with 15 saves.

Steadman and McLaughlin both steered clear of using the short bench as an excuse for the outcome.

“We just didn’t have it tonight, which happens,” Steadman said. “We can’t really blame it on people not being here because if you look at their roster, their talent level is pretty similar to what our talent level is here.”

Undoubtedly, it has been a story of slow starts and inconsistencies on both sides of the puck for the Beauts. That being said, not having your top blueliners on the ice would hurt any team, to say nothing of one with an already-thin defensive corps.

McLaughlin mentioned there was “a little more talking, a lot of — not yelling at each other, but yelling in a positive way, where to be, trying to trust people will be in the right spots.

“Every game we play is a different roster, unfortunately, for us, and the same with today, so we’re getting used to that, at least,” she continued.

Getting used to it hasn’t been easy for the Beauts goalie, however; she’s borne the brunt of the Beauts’ struggles all season, and Sunday’s game was no different. She had to fight through odd-man rushes and screens galore, finishing with five goals allowed on 22 shots. But she remained upbeat, saying, “You kind of have to have a sense of humor about it.

“We all just have to go out there and do our jobs. For me that was the hardest part, just trying to figure out where everybody is, and finally I just shrugged it off and said, ‘I’ll just play my game and whatever happens, happens.’”

The Beauts will have another chance to make things happen in a positive manner Jan. 3 against the Boston Pride. Puck drop is set for 3 p.m. at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center.

Whale’s Engstrom Suspended After Head Shot on Beauts’ Duggan

The National Women’s Hockey League announced Thursday that Connecticut Whale forward Molly Engstrom will be suspended for one game after being ejected from Dec. 6’s game against the Buffalo Beauts.

Engstrom and Beauts forward Meghan Duggan got into an altercation in the Whale’s defensive zone, away from the play, which Engstrom had started by cross-checking Duggan in the back. Duggan turned to confront Engstrom and received multiple cross-checks to her upper body, the final one to her head resulting in an injury.  The entire incident was broken down and explained in a YouTube video posted by the league: 

Engstrom received a five-minute major for an illegal check to the head and a game misconduct during the game. With the suspension, she misses this Sunday’s game against the New York Riveters and, as per the league and multiple other sources, will not be paid during the suspension, nor will any other suspended player for the duration of their suspension.

Duggan, meanwhile, did not return to game action. There has been no official update on her status, but she has a troublesome history of concussions to consider when taking into account the blows she received to her head.

NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan, NWHLPA Director Erika Lawler, NHL Department of Player Safety Director Patrick Burke and members of the NWHLPA not present during last Sunday’s game took part in the hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Burke was present as part of a working relationship he has with the NWHL to review and help establish policies on illegal hits and plays, as first reported by Kate Cimini of Today’s Slapshot. With his help, Rylan and the NWHL seek to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t become a regular occurrence; time will tell whether the disincentive via lost pay or the relatively short duration of suspension will be the bigger factor in that. Granted, one game is almost one-tenth of the remainder of the season, plus the fact that she was ejected less than midway through the game means she’s missed a good amount of time already, but we shall see.

 

More on this as information develops.

 

Buffalo Beauts Weekend Recap: Hard Knock Life For Beauts

It’s a hard knock life for the Buffalo Beauts right now as they left New England with a pair of losses after a doubleheader Saturday and Sunday, losing to the Boston Pride 7-6 Saturday and then suffering a shootout loss to the Connecticut Whale, 3-2.

Granted, neither game was uneventful, especially when you consider the ways in which Buffalo continues to get back into games when all seems lost. That was the case Saturday, when Brianne McLaughlin got lit up for five goals against, getting pulled late in the first period for Amanda Makela.

Devon Skeats scored the first two of an eventual hat trick, breaking up two goals by Jillian Dempsey, as well as goals by Jordan Smelker, Hilary Knight, and Emily Field. Knight in particular factored heavily into the Pride’s early success, tallying all of her three points within the first period. Meanwhile, Dempsey and Rachel Llanes displayed some incredible chemistry on their line, with Llanes executing a great forecheck while Dempsey found space in front of the net and caught McLaughlin moving. Llanes had the primary assist on each of Dempsey’s goals.

Field’s goal was the final one against McLaughlin, who had made some great saves in an attempt to keep her team alive, but also allowed two five-hole goals and had allowed nearly one goal for every five saves. It was 5-2 after the first, and Buffalo needed desperately to find some way to get its offense into the Pride’s zone for keeps.

Amanda Pelkey made it 6-2 against new Beauts goaltender Makela two minutes into the second period, but then the Beauts began to mount their comeback, with Kourtney Kunichika answering just ten seconds later off the rush. The rest of the period was relatively tame, with the Pride carrying most of the play and outshooting the Beauts 16-5 during it. Makela held up well despite the pressure, benefiting from an improved defensive effort from the skaters in front of her which allowed her to see many of the shots coming her way.

Buffalo made it a nearly even game in the last third, keeping up with the Pride in both shots (10 to Boston’s 11) and speed. The line featuring Hailey Browne, Skeats and Kunichika combined for two more goals, as Browne potted a shot from the point that had been knocked down by Skeats, and then Skeats converted a cross-ice pass from Browne to complete her hat trick and pull Buffalo within one. This line was speedy, gritty and creative all night, with Kunichika and Browne getting into the corners and Skeats showing off her speed to get in close on Slebodnick. Slebodnick was pulled after Skeats’s last goal in favor of Brittany Ott, finishing her night with 15 saves on 21 shots.

The Beauts then had a glorious chance to tie it, as two Pride penalties in a row gave them substantial 5-on-3 time; however, Boston held play to the perimeter for much of it before being relieved by an offensive zone penalty on Emily Pfalzer. Buffalo’s power play succeeded twice on six chances, but faltered both here and on its last attempt with Knight off for slashing.

A goal by Rachel Llanes on an impossible angle made it 7-5 Pride, and then in intense final two minutes of play saw Buffalo pull back to within one, as Emily Pfalzer scored with Makela on the bench for an extra attacker with 1:03 remaining. Buffalo’s rally fell short, however, as Boston was able to regain and maintain possession, getting the puck deep into the Beauts’ zone and keeping it there as time expired.

Sunday’s game saw Meghan Duggan return to the lineup against the Connecticut Whale after missing two games with prior commitments (namely, coaching for Clarkson University). She announced her presence in grand fashion, scoring just 51 seconds into the first period off the rush. Erin Zach, who passed to Duggan from the left wing, earned her first point on the season and the only assist on the goal. It was a welcome start for the Beauts, who executed good transition play early and were getting the saves they needed from Makela. Duggan’s presence in particular gave Buffalo an aggressive edge, as she covered the ice impressively and fought for every loose puck.

Defensively, a couple of miscommunications led to the Whale pressuring late, testing Makela from all sides. Still, they managed to get to the first intermission up a goal for the first time this season, while the Whale experienced their first deficit after 20 minutes.

Connecticut came out strong in the second period, trying to push their way into Buffalo’s end of the ice but coming up against good defensive work from blueliners and forwards alike. Frustration turned into chippiness, and it came to a head when Meghan Duggan and Molly Engstrom got into it with each other behind a play that was whistled dead. Engstrom cross-checked Duggan in the back; Duggan took offense and shoved back. Engstrom then retaliated with head contact that sent Duggan to the ice and Engstrom herself to the locker room for an early shower. Duggan sat out the rest of the game presumably as a precaution, leaving the Beauts a skater short.

Shelby Bram scored on the ensuing five-minute power play for Buffalo, making it 2-0, but a power play on their end gave Sam Faber the opportunity she needed to cut the Beauts’ lead in half. She skated in wide on Makela and her defender, going forehand-backhand for a beautiful top shelf goal to make it 2-1 on the skater-advantage. Much of this period was spent with either one or both teams shorthanded, Connecticut more so than Buffalo, but chances for the Beauts were either stuffed, broken up or went wide. The defense stepped up in the offensive zone for Buffalo; Emily Pfalzer often led the rush up the ice, while Megan Bozek had multiple booming shots from the blueline gobbled up or pushed just wide of the Whale’s net.

The third period saw the Whale and Beauts trade chances, with both goaltenders making excellent saves. Connecticut had been getting away from its game, taking unnecessary penalties, but refocused just in time for Kaleigh Fratkin to tie the game on a redirected shot by Shiann Darkangelo with 1:17 to go in regulation. The Beauts tried to argue that Fratkin had used a high stick to put the puck in, but there was no video review available to confirm, so the call on the ice stood.

The wind was out of Buffalo’s sails by the time overtime hit; they attacked with very little force until the final minute or so of extra time, instead trying to withstand a relentless flurry of shots from the Whale’s top guns. No doubt it was as much (or probably more so) exhaustion from playing a doubleheader over the weekend, plus extra time, as it was a bout of frustration over losing a lead and potentially a point. However, they got out of the five-minute frame still tied, warranting a shootout.

There, the Whale dominated, with all three shooters (Kelly Babstock, Jessica Koizumi, and Kelli Stack) finding the back of the net on Makela. Kourtney Kunichika was the lone shootout scorer for the Beauts, while Pfalzer never got to take a shot due to Stack’s winner. Makela finished with 20 saves, while Leonoff had 25.

The shootout loss dropped the Beauts to 1-5-2, while the Whale remain undefeated at 7-0-0 and the Pride climbed to 5-3-0 with an additional win Sunday against the Riveters.

The Buffalo Beauts have a week off before returning home to play the Boston Pride Dec. 20. Puck drop is at 3 p.m. at HarborCenter. Tickets are still available; streaming will be provided via NWHL Cross-Ice Pass on YouTube.