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.

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.

Quick Weekend Recap: Montreal Beats Toronto, Blades Beat Brampton, Toronto locks Clarkson Cup Slot

Sorry for the radio silence! Elena and I have both been taken out by wicked sinus infections at the same time which tends to lead to nothing getting done. 🙂 We’re both (hopefully, knock on wood) finally on the mend though. This roundup is going to be a quick one, however.

Okay, so this past weekend was exciting! The Toronto Furies visited Montreal, where they played the Stars twice. They lost both games, Saturday’s game 1-6, and Sunday’s game 1-5.

The Brampton Thunder visited Boston, and also lost both of their games. Saturday’s game was lost to the Blades 2-6, but Boston shut out Brampton 0-4 on Sunday.

With Brampton’s losses this weekend, Toronto locked the final Clarkson Cup slot! So we now have our four teams- Boston, Montreal, Calgary, and Toronto! We don’t have the final seeding yet, and the top three are currently very close in the standings.

For more in-depth coverage on the Brampton-Boston series this past weekend, check out Zoë’s coverage over at Stanley Cup of Chowder!

CWHL Weekend Recap: Boston takes 2/3 over Calgary, Toronto and Brampton split.

Boston Blades @ Calgary Inferno

If this is the preview of the Clarkson Cup Final, oh boy, hold onto your seats! This weekend’s Boston Blades @ Calgary Inferno series was a LOT of fun to watch/listen to. (Remember, Calgary home games have audio streaming even if the game isn’t live streamed by the league!)

Calgary’s been red hot this season (if you’ll pardon the pun 😉 ) but Boston isn’t anything to scoff at either, and they showed it this weekend. Calgary won the first of the three matches this weekend in a tight 3-4 win. Shots were also incredibly close, Boston with 28 and Calgary with 29. Rookie Jordan Smelker was paired up with Brianna Decker, also a rookie for the team, and the two were playing really well together on the blue line, but also contributed all three of the goals for Boston together. (Decker assisted on two of Smelker’s goals, and also put one in unassisted.) Calgary’s goals were more spread out, with Jessica Wong and Rebecca Johnston both getting goals unassisted. The other Calgary goals were scored by Cunningham and Stone. Notably, Aina Takeuchi got her second point on a secondary assist to Stone. The rookie player from Team Japan has played in 6 games for Calgary as a defense, and while she’s not seeing a ton of minutes, it’s great to see a non-North American player in the league and doing well.

Saturday, the game went to a shoot out tied 3-3 until Blake Bolden potted the game winner in the second round of the shoot out. Shots again were pretty close in the entire game, but Boson had the edge– final tally was 37 for Boston, 32 for Calgary. Yet again, Smelker and Decker were instrumental to the goals scored for Boston, assisting on Jillian Dempsey’s second period goal, and with Smelker scoring the first goal in the third. Bolden got the third tying goal on a power play, assisted by Rachel Llanes.

Sunday, it seems like Boston’s other talent started to hit the mark, and the Blades won 4-1 over the Inferno. Monique Lamoureux, who’s been cycling between forward and defense as the team seems to need her, made her first mark on the scoring sheet for this weekend. She picked up the opening goal of the game, assisted by Weber. Buie and Bellamy combined for the second goal short-handed, and Decker picked up the third goal assisted by Dempsey and Lamoureux. While Calgary’s Brittany Esposito managed to score the lone marker for the Inferno unassisted and short-handed, Brianna Decker capped off the game with a fourth goal for Boston unassisted on the power play. Shots this time were tilted a bit more in Boston’s favour– Boston put 38 on Delayne Brian, while Calgary only managed 21 on Ott.

As regards the injuries mentioned in our weekend preview, it looks like Jessica Campbell was on the ice for Calgary– she picked up at least one point this weekend. However, from what I could tell, neither Irwin (Calgary, unknown injury) nor Knight (Boston, something with her leg) were on the ice this weekend. Knight does appear to have the boot off– let’s hope that rehab is going well and we’ll see her on the ice for the Clarkson Cup!

Brampton Thunder & Toronto Furies

So Brampton and Toronto split this weekend, although Toronto picked up a point in Saturday’s game as things went to a shootout. As of the writing of this piece, Toronto has pulled ahead of Brampton very slightly, with 19 points in 22 games. Brampton has 14 points in 20 games, with two games in hand on Toronto. Toronto hasn’t locked fourth place (and entrance to the Clarkson Cup) yet, but it’s gonna take some work for Brampton to get there.

This weekend’s games were, appropriately for a series with such important points on the line, hard-fought and scrappy. Saturday’s game was the closest, ending 3-2 after a shootout. There were 11 penalties in Saturday’s exchange, include 20 & the game for a hit by Meagan Aarts that sent Toronto’s Leah Whittaker into the boards at a bad angle. (It’s called hooking on the game sheet, but it looked like a hit from my angle.) Whittaker was boarded off the ice, and taken to the hospital. According to the Thunder’s twitter, as of Monday she was sore but nothing was broken. There was no news yet as to if she’s be able to join the team in Boston next weekend. Whittaker’s injury took Brampton down from 14 skaters to 13.

The even shorter bench and the even more penalty-ridden play (32 minutes on 16 penalties between the two teams) seemed to have a negative affect on Brampton Sunday when they traveled to play Toronto. Brampton lost 5-2, including a goal scored on a penalty shot by Carolyne Prevost. Aarts was playing this game, so we can assume no suspension for her from Saturday’s game.

In case you were confused, Alyssa Baldin of the Furies was in fact wearing a different number this weekend. No longer wearing her old 5, as of this past weekend, she will be wearing 57 in honour of her father.

Other Notes:

CWHL Weekend Recap: Calgary Sweeps Toronto, Boston Crushes Brampton

Calgary Inferno Sweep Toronto Furies

(Photo from Dave Holland/CWHL)

The Calgary Inferno smoked the Toronto Furies this weekend, increasing their lead in the league standings to a solid 22 points in 14 games, 5 points more than the second place Boston Blades.

Continue reading CWHL Weekend Recap: Calgary Sweeps Toronto, Boston Crushes Brampton

Weekend Recap: Boston Blades upset, US Winter Camp

Toronto Furies Upset the Boston Blades, Blades lose both games.

Okay, I was cocky about the Blades’ chances when I previewed this past weekend, and apparently it came back to bite me in the ass. The Blades lost both games to the Furies, both 3-2 in the Furies favor. It took Boston until the third period of the second game to get their big name players on the board– depth scoring is all well and good, but as a Minnesota Wild fan, I’m intimately familiar with how much not having those big names score can hurt a team. I’ve got to watch this weekend’s streaming game a couple more times, I think, before I’ve settled on what exactly Toronto has figured out to solve Boston, so I’m going to refrain from more off the cuff analysis right now.

Continue reading Weekend Recap: Boston Blades upset, US Winter Camp

CWHL Weekend Wrap-Up: Boston Blades split series with Brampton Thunder, Montreal Stars split series with Toronto Furies

Split series all around, and Boston’s canceled games are forfeit.

Okay, I’m saying it here and now– I’m not promising coverage over a holiday weekend again. Sorry, y’all, for my utter failure in having coverage for this past weekend. I went to see my parents for the holiday, and well. Things got away from me.

So, what did happen this past weekend? Well, Boston played Brampton twice, and split the series with them, taking their first loss of the season. You should check out Zoë at the Stanley Cup of Chowder’s recap of the games, it’s pretty good. Jordan Smelker had a sweet hat-trick in Boston’s 6-0 rout of Brampton on Sunday. Also, I’m really starting to think that a lot of Erica Howe’s issues in net for the Thunder are stemming from the defense in front of her– possibly that it’s a real style mismatch, although I think that they’re starting to gel better. It’s a rough process to watch, though, when I’m used to watching Erica Howe in net for Canada or the NCAA Championship winning Clarkson.

As Zoë also pointed out, the CWHL’s website is now listing the canceled Montreal @ Boston games as forfeits for Boston. This means Montreal has pulled ahead of Boston in the standings, leaving Boston in third place. Although Boston has games in hand, and I think they could make this deficit up, it sets a concerning precedent for labor relations between the CWHL and their players.

On the one hand, striking is never without its costs– also, the CWHL probably had to pay out for the wasted ice time (which is $$$, in case you don’t know), and scheduling new ice time seems quite tricky for the league due to the various constraints on them. (Team availability, ice availability, etc) On the other hand, it’s my understanding that the league lacks any sort of formal player input into league policy, such as the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with their players. Particularly for the CWHL’s only American team, having a strike result in a forfeit would be something I would think would have a particularly chilling impact on player/league relations.

Toronto and Montreal also split their two game series this weekend, with Toronto winning 4-3 in a shoot out on Saturday, while Montreal won 4-0 on Sunday. I didn’t get a chance to watch this game, so I don’t have a ton to add on this one, sadly.

All-Star Game Voting is OPEN!

In other news, voting for the captains at the All Star Game is OPEN! Here are the rules:

  • Voting period: Voting opens November 29, 2014 at 9:00 am ET and closes December 10, 2014 at 7:00 pm ET. Votes outside this time will be considered ineligible.
  • You can vote for up to 3 players once 24-hour period during the voting period.
  • Votes made by use of automated systems will disqualify the votes.

So, head on over to the voting page and get those votes in! I’m personally pulling for the all goaltender team captains. 😉

Weekend Recap: Calgary Inferno sweep Brampton Thunder, Boston games canceled.

Weekend Cancellations:

First off, let’s get this out of the way: This weekend’s Montreal @ Boston series was canceled. We don’t, officially, know why. The CWHL claims it was due to “unforeseen circumstances”. I have not heard back from the league if single-game ticket purchases for these games will be refunded.

Unofficially, Stanley Cup of Chowder’s recap is pretty consistent with our understanding of the situation, but in short, there are contract issues happening between the Blades players and the League. We’ll have more info out as we know it.

Calgary Inferno sweep Brampton Thunder in Three Game Series

So, the other series this weekend was three games between the Calgary Inferno and the Brampton Thunder. My preview was proven a bit optimistic– Brampton did not manage to steal a game, and were in fact kept to very few goals in general.

Continue reading Weekend Recap: Calgary Inferno sweep Brampton Thunder, Boston games canceled.

CWHL Weekend Round-Up: Boston remains perfect, Montreal and Brampton split series!

Toronto @ Boston: Blades sweep the Furies!

Boston’s home opening weekend was a rousing success, with the Blades sweeping defending Clarkson Cup champions, the Toronto Furies.

Saturday’s game was fast, high scoring, and low on penalties– the final score was 2-6 Boston, and there were three penalties in the entire game. Jillian Dempsey got a hat trick for Boston, with Janine Weber, Rachel Llanes, and Monique Lameroux making up the rest. Toronto’s Mallory Deluce converted on Toronto’s sole power-play opportunity, with Jenelle Kohanchuk adding the only other tally for them that night in the third. (Boston didn’t score on either of their power-play chances, despite having the top ranked power play % in the season so far.)

Sunday’s game, however, got a lot more physical, although it still remained high scoring. The game ended 2-5 Boston, with nine penalties between the two teams. Most of the scoring happened in the first two periods– going into the third, the score was 2-4, with Jillian Dempsey adding an insurance goal in the third. However, in the third, Boston picked up two penalties early on, and Toronto’s Tessa Bonhomme picked up three toward the end. (Cross-checking, hooking, and finally body checking, if you’re curious. 🙂 ) The increased physicality however, didn’t lead to a goal for either side– Dempsey’s was not a power-play goal.
Sunday was also Meghan Duggan’s first game for the Blades this season! She finished the game with an assist, and was a +1.

Montreal @ Brampton: Split Series!

Brampton took Saturday’s game, 4-2, for their first win this season. Going in, I would have been kind of surprised if you’d told me that Brampton would pretty much dominate this game– but they did. Both of Montreal’s goals came in the first period, the first from CWHL founding member Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, and the second from last year’s Angela James Bowl winner, Ann-Sophie Bettez. Despite this early burst of life in the first period, Montreal spent a lot of the game looking pretty lifeless, and for such a speedy team, they spent a lot of time standing around. Even in the first, the game looked more like a tennis match than any sort of maintained offensive pressure. Brampton’s Laura Fortino, who went first overall in the 2014 Draft, got her first goal in the CWHL at the end of the first period.

Brampton was able to carry this momentum into the second, and really dominated in the second. In the second period, Lauriane Rougeau picked up a couple of penalties, and Brampton’s Jess Jones managed to convert on one. Lindsay Vine got the other goal for Brampton this period. Erica Howe, in net for the second time for Brampton, spent a lot of this period being ever so slightly too aggressive, I felt like– she seemed to be constantly scrambling to get back into position and make the save. There were a lot of really heart stopping moments where I’d think a puck had gone in, and then a Brampton player came up with it and got it out.

The third was a bit rougher, and a touch sloppier– I think players were more tired. Things got a bit more physical as well, and Brampton picked up four penalties in the period. Their penalty kill, however, was excellent, and all were killed without any goals given to Montreal. Howe was really on top of things this period, and was a large component of the PK. During one of these penalty kills, Fielding Montgomery got a short-handed goal for Brampton. A short-handed goal can sometimes be a sign of a disordered penalty kill– if you’re in position to score, you’re not in the right position to keep the other team from scoring– but in this case, I think it was more of a flub on the part of Montreal.

Charline Labonté came up HUGE for Montreal in this game, despite the eventual loss. This one definitely wasn’t on her. She made 30 saves on 34 shots, while Howe made 19 saves.

Check out the highlight reel from this game!

However, on Sunday, Montreal came back and won in a very physical game, breaking their losing streak with a 3-2 victory. The victory hinged hugely on their power play, specifically the top PP unit of Julie Chu, Cathy Chartrand, Caroline Oullette, and Ann-Sophie Bettez.

The first goal of the game came in the last minutes of the first, despite several power play opportunities for both sides. It was actually a power-play goal for Ann-Sophie Bettez, assisted by Cathy Chartrand and Julie Chu.

Penalty-wise, things calmed down in the second, with only one tripping call against Brampton very early in the first. Brampton also tied it up 1-1 with Laura Fortino’s second goal of her CWHL career.

In the third, Carly Mercer capitalized on a power play opportunity for Brampton early in the period to make things 2-1 Brampton. They held this thin lead until a penalty fairly late in the period led to a Caroline Ouellette power-play goal, assisted by Chartrand and Chu. Bettez got another assurance goal, this time at even strength, a few minutes later, to finish things off 3-2 Montreal.

CWHL League Standings:

  • At the end of this weekend’s action, Calgary remains on top of the league with 7 points in 5 games, but Boston is in second with a perfect record of 6 points in 3 games, two games in hand on Calgary.
  • Toronto and Montreal are tied with 4 points each, but Toronto has two games in hand against Montreal, and thus are 3rd.
  • Brampton remains at the bottom of the league, with 3 points in 4 games.