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.