Saturday night, the 2016-2017 Boston Blades met the New England Eagles in a preseason outing at The Edge in Bedford, MA. The stands were fuller than most of the Blades games I attended last year, thanks in part to a profusion of Eagles fans; those arriving early were treated to the end of an East Coast Wizards boys’ game. While my visit to the Blades’ selection camp last month had left me hopeful, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the new roster or their opponents. I definitely wasn’t expecting such a dramatic victory for the Blades, let alone one that gave me as many questions as answers.
First, let’s address their opponents. The New England Eagles are a local veteran’s team that’s part of the Skate for the 22 Foundation. This Saturday’s game against the Blades was the first game for the Eagles as part of the foundation’s hockey program. Considering their background and freshness as a team, the Eagles played an incredible game against the Blades. They scored the first goal and matched the Blades goal-for-goal for the first period. The Eagles had a strong offensive presence and a lot of reach on the Blades working in their favor, but their energy flagged over the course of the game. This was not an easy 9-4 contest. The Eagles made the Blades work for their win.
That win. Where to start? Let’s begin with the forwards, where Boston has made the biggest gains. The team’s newcomers scored five of those nine goals, with one each for BC alums Meghan Grieves and Kate Leary, BU’s Dakota Woodworth and Kayla Tutino, and UConn’s Margaret Zimmer. Their play was fast and dynamic, long passes easily connecting through traffic, with more backhanded passing than I saw last year. “Very strong forwards,” Tutino said of her linemates, “Lots of speed and they’re strong on their sticks, so they made some great passes today.” While the 2015-2016 Blades generally relied on a chip-and-chase strategy to move the puck into the offensive zone, these players and their linemates alike confidently carried the puck across both blue lines toward the Eagles’ goal. Even at close quarters with Eagles players, who relied on their long reach as well as generating traffic near their goal, the Blades continually generated scoring opportunities and kept the play in their Eagles’ zone.
Newcomers weren’t the only forwards who shone in this game. Last year, the Blades had few goals and few consistent scorers. Megan Myers, a returning 2014-2015 player, and Megan Shea led the team with four and three goals respectively; Captain Tara Watchorn (on defense), alternate captain Kristina Brown, and Elizabeth Tremblay each scored two. Against the Eagles on Saturday, Brown scored as many goals in one game as she did in the entirety of the 2015-2016 season. Myers and returning 2014-2015 player Casey Pickett scored one goal each. After the game, Brown was glowing. “Everyone’s really starting to gel together off the ice and it was awesome to see it come together on the ice,” she said. “We obviously always have room for improvement and cleaning some stuff up, but it’s really exciting to get to our next game in Toronto.” With teammates who are truly peers on the ice, these returning players are getting the opportunity to showcase their strengths and contribute even more to the team.
Speaking of returning players, my award for Most Improved must go to Clara St. Germain, who held her own on the same line with Watchorn last night. “Clara is one of the hardest workers out there,” said assistant coach Mike Diamantopoulos. Coach Brian McCloskey elaborated, “She’s very smart, very coachable. She did improve a lot last year, I was impressed. You can always find a place for a player like her: even though she might have the size and the skating ability of some other players, she makes up for it by being really intelligent and knowing her limitations.” The Blades’ defense spent less time protecting their goal than preventing turnover—the chippy play of last year was replaced by tight, controlled forward play supported by the defense. Watchorn and returning player Dru Burns continue to be key pieces for the Blades, each assisting on a goal of Brown’s. I was less impressed by newcomer Cassandra Opela, who seemed to have trouble shooting in tight quarters and through traffic.
Finally, there are the Blades’ two new goaltenders: Lauren Dahm, who started for the Blades, and Shelley Payne, who came in during the second period. While Dahm allowed three goals and Payne only one, it’s difficult to compare their performances on that basis alone—Dahm was facing much more shot pressure from the Eagles, while the Blades kept the Eagles penned in their own zone for most of Payne’s time in net. That said, Dahm appeared nervous and unsteady on her feet: the first goal she allowed came when she was too far out from the net to block the shot, the second and third when she fell forward. Payne seemed more comfortable on the ice, steady on her feet and easily moving from standing to butterfly position; the final goal of the game went in right behind her shoulder. “Both played solid,” said Diamantopoulos. “It’s tough for them, too, playing against guys and the way they can shoot—it’s a lot different from what they face normally.”
The lineup for Saturday’s game included some practice players and does not fully reflect the final roster, which GM Krista Patronick will share this week: those players will face the Furies in Toronto on October 15 and 16 as the Blades begin their season on the road. Still, the change in energy and direction from last season is clear. Tutino and Leary were cheerful after their first professional game, eager to talk about how much fun they were having. “This is a great group of girls,” said Tutino; “It was a great game to play, and obviously fun to win,” said Leary. Meanwhile, captain Watchorn was beaming. “It’s exciting this year,” she said. “It’s going to be good. This is great.” And a hard-won great it is, too.