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.

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.

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.”

New York Riveters Fall After Fujimoto Injury

It’s been a busy few weeks. What did we miss from the Riveters? Let’s see… Ashley Johnston rocks the groutfit to end all groutfits, Taylor Holtze owns two ducks, and in a ‘Stars, They’re Just Like Us’ moment, Janine Weber and Kiira Dosdall rollerblade to the grocery store.

Oh, yeah, and the Riveters won. Twice.

Of course, I didn’t watch either of those games, which were both match-ups against the Boston Pride. It’s great to see the Rivs getting on the board and gaining some confidence—at some point I’ll hopefully come back around to take a better look at what their keys to success were, but for now, let’s look at the Riveters’ most recent game.

I trekked out to New York home ice at Aviator Sports & Events Center for the first time… and I don’t think ‘trek’ is the wrong verb to use. Coming from lower Manhattan to the rink in Brooklyn involved taking two subways and then hopping on the Q35 bus at Ave H, all the way out to Aviator. And back. Not, by any means, an insurmountable challenge, but definitely a solid hour and a half. A tip: the Q35 bus leaves from the Avenue H side of the Target, which isn’t quite at the actual intersection of Avenue H and Flatbush—I was a little lost until, like a beacon through the night, I spotted a girl in a Fujimoto jersey and followed her. Also, once you get off the bus, hope you’re with other Riveters fans like I was, because the route across the grounds of Floyd Bennett Field to Aviator is not particularly well-marked.

The game itself was exciting—plenty of shots fired off by both teams (36 by Buffalo, 28 by New York), resulting in a strong showing by all goalies. Both teams were held scoreless in the first, and while the Riveters looked less physically aggressive than they have previously, their play looked more organized than ever. In the early minutes of the second, the teams looked about equal—both Hanrahan of New York and Bozek of Buffalo had shots that looked inevitable, but just didn’t make it. It was the Riveters’ powerhouse Madison Packer, however, who lit it up halfway through the period. With the score 1-0 for the home team, the crowd seemed enthusiastic and the Riveters ready to take the win.

While it’s never 100% obvious what causes a team to lose their lead, it’s pretty easy to point to the collision with Fujimoto late in the 2nd as a major factor. She was visibly slow to get up from the run-in with a Beaut, and allowed two goals by Buffalo’s Devon Skeats in the first twelve minutes of the third. While many of the Riveters were dead-set on blocking shots with any part of their body they could, Fujimoto needed to get off the ice, and the coaching staff subbed in Scrivens (for the first time!) at the 13:30 mark. (Fujimoto was later helped off the ice, seemingly favoring one leg.)

Desperation seemed to get the best of the Riveters as the final minutes wore down, and their previously impressive play suffered, becoming less disciplined and coordinated. The defining moment of that issue came when Scrivens was pulled for an extra Riveters attacker and Buffalo managed to sneak an empty-netter with just seven seconds remaining. And that was it. In twenty-two minutes, the game went from a powerful Riveters team effort to a hard loss.

In the interest of making some sense of it all, let’s talk about plus/minus. Not real plus/minus, which I am not nearly enough of a fancystats person to use regularly, but a fake version which hopes to provide some clarity on the Riveters’ situation right now:

PLUS: The First Two Minutes – Spent exclusively in the Buffalo zone, the Riveters looked completely dominant and confident from the get-go.

MINUS: The Third Period – The Riveters have had issues in the final twenty before, allowing two Whale goals and four Pride goals in their respective first matchups. They’d seemed to have overcome that in the last two games versus the Pride, but it appears that their stamina issues aren’t over yet.

PLUS: Beth Hanrahan – I have in my notes that she was “doin’ God’s work,” by which I meant to say Hanrahan had a number of great shots and was working super hard consistently throughout the game.

MINUS: Celeste Brown – Now, this isn’t ‘real’ plus/minus, so I’m not saying that the Riveters are worse with Brown on the ice. With six of the Riveters’ twelve penalty minutes, however, I’m worried that Brown is becoming the bear to poke to draw a penalty from the Riveters.

PLUS: Madison Packer – Three goals in three games makes Packer the highest goal-scorer on the Riveters, and a force to be reckoned with. She’s 5’9, but plays like she’s 6’2, including almost-kinda leveling a linesman at one point.

MINUS: Dani Rylan – Stood directly behind me the entire second period, forcing me to anxiously cover my (only somewhat) critical notes with a sheet of paper like I was taking a sixth-grade math test. (This is a joke.) (Sort of.)

PLUS: Taylor Holze – Blocked shots like her life depended on it, moved like lightning around the ice, and got great shots off, including an amazing breakaway at the midpoint of the second period.

The New York Riveters face the Boston Pride yet again on Sunday in Boston, and then return home to take on the (UNDEFEATED) Whale on the 13th. I hope to see them taking less penalties and playing through the full sixty minutes without fading, especially because they’ve proved before that they can take the Pride. And as always… let’s go Riveters!

Buffalo Beauts Change of Scenery Works Wonders

A change of scenery looked to be just the ticket for the Buffalo Beauts, who finally know what the other side of the win/loss column looks like after beating the New York Riveters in a 3-1 comeback effort Sunday at Aviator Sports & Events Complex. Devon Skeats scored twice and Brianne McLaughlin made 27 saves in the first-ever win for the Beauts (1-4-1), while the Riveters (2-4-0) missed a chance to hit the .500 mark.

The Riveters came in strong, mounting a bit of pressure early on McLaughlin before Buffalo was able to find its own legs. New York’s penalty kill was put to work throughout the game (six minor penalties for 12 minutes total), and it did well, being aggressive up high in their own zone and pushing the Beauts’ point players to either make harmless passes to the perimeter or cough up the puck to them. The defense also made sure to clog up the middle of the ice and block plenty of shots (many of them by Buffalo’s Kelley Steadman and Megan Bozek). Nana Fujimoto took care of the rest, stopping 29 of the 31 shots she faced overall, including nice chances on Kunichika and Emily Pfalzer off Beauts rushes.

Madison Packer made it 1-0 with less than six minutes left in the second period, with a nice move around Paige Harrington to go high glove on McLaughlin. The goal came just moments after Buffalo believed it had scored one of its own; however, Fujimoto had been knocked over in the crease as the puck crossed the line on that play, negating any score.

Skeats and the Beauts’ forecheck worked in the third to erase all of the careful work the Riveters had done, and they did so in quick fashion. Skeats’s first goal, a high floater off Fujimoto’s glove, came with 11:45 to go, and 3:45 later, Kourtney Kunichika found her crashing in front again for the tiebreaker at the tail end of a power play. The goals came in the nick of time for the Beauts, who had been testing Fujimoto all night but were foiled either by her pads or by the shot blocking and efficient clearing of her defense.

Fujimoto left the game soon after; in her place, Jenny Scrivens made her NWHL debut in net and held up well in the couple of minutes she played, making four saves off of good pressure from Buffalo. While there is no official word of what happened to Fujimoto, multiple bloggers and viewers reported via Twitter that she was helped off the ice by teammate Ashley Johnston and a trainer, implying injury.

Scrivens was pulled with 1:45 remaining in regulation for the extra skater, but the Beauts held firm, and Hailey Browne put in an empty-netter with seven seconds to go for the final score.

The Beauts have little time to spare with celebrations; next weekend is going to be a doubleheader, with a game against Boston at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center 7:30 p.m. EST Saturday and then a quick turnaround Sunday against the Whale at Chelsea Piers CT (a 4:30 p.m. EST puck drop). With an improved game against the Pride (and Boston now sitting at 3-3-0 in the midst of a three-game slide), plus this win, Buffalo is certainly raring to exact revenge.

Stay tuned for more on this and upcoming games, as well as the Beauts and everything NWHL.

Buffalo Beauts Lose in Shootout, First for NWHL

Three shooters. Three chances to win. One goal is all it takes.

Unfortunately for the Buffalo Beauts in their first-ever shootout game (and the first-ever for the National Women’s Hockey League), that one goal came off the stick of the wrong shooter. Kelly Babstock scored the lone goal in the skills competition to lift the Connecticut Whale over the Beauts, 7-6, in a wild event at HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo Sunday night.

The Beauts had turned around a 5-1 deficit after the first into a 6-6 tie by the end of the second, on the strength of five unanswered goals (including two apiece by Kourtney Kunichika and Kelley Steadman) and a strong performance by Amanda Makela in relief for Brianne McLaughlin.

A key factor in the scoring was new captain Emily Pfalzer, who entered the game without a point and ended it with five assists and the first star of the evening. It was a sensational game for the diminutive blueliner, who showed poise and resilience in leading her squad to mount the comeback.

The Beauts also held strong without a key defender. Megan Bozek earned a five-minute major and was ejected from the game in a penalty-filled first period for Buffalo, for high sticking Whale forward Alyssa Wohlfeiler. In the ensuing five minutes, a 1-0 deficit became 4-0, as Babstock, Kelli Stack and Kaleigh Fratkin each capitalized. Then, after Steadman’s first (a shorthanded goal) made it 4-1, Jessica Koizumi put the cap on McLaughlin’s night.

Buffalo came out stronger in the final two frames. They took just two more penalties on the evening (as opposed to four in the first 20 minutes alone) and peppered the Whale’s goalie, Nicole Stock, with shot after shot, after she also came into the game to relieve Jamie Leonoff. By crashing the net hard and making Stock and the skaters in front of her scramble to regain control, the Beauts clawed their way back into the game, while also getting sticks into passing lanes and blocking shots in their own end.

They also thrived on the many power play opportunities given to them, scoring three on the skater-advantage; for their part, Connecticut scored four power-play goals of their own. Along with Steadman’s and Kunichika’s goals, Meghan Duggan scored her second of the year, and Hayley Williams had the first goal of her career to tie the game at 6.

The improved play on both sides of the puck paved the way for Makela, who came through with 15 saves on 16 shots, posting the best save percentage of the game for any of its goalies (.938). It wasn’t the most ideal situation for the netminder, but she was ready for her first action in net since joining her team two weeks ago.

“It felt great to be out there,” she said. “It’s really fun in a game like that, where there’s so many goals, and our team came back which was amazing.”

Of course, that meant she had to deal with the shootout, which was the first of its kind in the league. Makela said the team wasn’t too sure what the format would be if the game ended in a tie, but it was exciting to head into that kind of a situation.

“To go into a shootout is always fun,” she said.

It didn’t seem as fun for the shooters, particularly Kunichika, who stumbled a bit after posting her third and fourth goals on the year. Late in the overtime period, she missed a golden opportunity on an open net. Then, as the first shooter up for Buffalo (who elected to go first instead of second), she attempted a backhand-forehand move and lost the handle on the puck.

Kunichika credited nerves as part of the reason for her slip-ups, especially during the shootout.

“Knowing I was going first for our team was kind of nerve-wracking,” she said. “Even though I had a good game, it’s still hard to take the loss knowing I had the chance I had and that I had so much time right in front of the open net.”

Still, her performance and that of the skaters alongside her had the coaching staff pleased.

“It shows what we’re made of,” co-head coach Ric Seiling said. “We’re very proud of what the ladies accomplished tonight and how they responded. They could have buried their heads, but instead, the fans were out there cheering them on, we’re down three goals and they’re chanting ‘Let’s Go Buffalo’… That’s something that really motivates these players.

“I think after the way this year opened up with us trying to get everyone together on the same page, it’s starting to come.”

And coming together it is, albeit despite missing a piece of the puzzle. Just one game after joining her team for the first time, forward Erin Zach is rehabbing an upper-body injury and was unable to play Sunday (hence Steadman’s return to the lineup). There is no known timetable for her return.

This was a game full of firsts — first multi-goal game for Kunichika, first five-point game for an NWHLer (Pfalzer), first overtime and first shootout for the league — but not all of those firsts were positive. In addition to Bozek’s ejection, this game saw a serious injury to a Connecticut player. Forward Anya Battaglino attempted a pinch on the Beauts’ Devon Skeats, went head over heels and landed badly on the ice. Medical staff removed her from the playing surface on a stretcher. Nothing has been made public about her condition thus far, but stay tuned for any further information.

Overall, the ultimate takeaway is that the Beauts were able to make a statement and push the Whale to the absolute limit, but still have a ways to go to put together a full 60 minutes of play. They’ll get to figure that out on the road against the New York Riveters next Sunday during their first road trip of the season.

The Riveters are the only team the Beauts haven’t faced yet. Like Buffalo, they started out 0-3, but have pulled out wins against the Boston Pride twice in the last two weeks, largely on the strength of a world-class goaltender in Nana Fujimoto. They’re a bit of a lower-scoring team, with Brooke Ammerman (three points in five games) leading the way offensively. Still, they’ve found ways to win against a team with a loaded offense, which proves they can at the very least capitalize on mistakes their opponents make and limit any chances.

Still, the Beauts believe their chances are good against a surging team, and that this game proves they’ve taken another step in the right direction.

“I think we’re a similar team — gritty, physical, we work hard,” Kunichika said. “I think it’s going to be a good [matchup], very physical, as it was this game, so hopefully it continues to be close games.”

As for the prospect of the first road trip for Buffalo, players and coaches alike agreed this would be a good opportunity for the still-growing team to bond off of the ice. Makela said she was looking forward to getting to know her new teammates a bit better.

“It’s nice to have a few home games, but to get on the road, it’s a different atmosphere, different challenges you face,” she said. “It’s going to be fun to get out there with the girls.”

The Riveters host the Beauts at 7 p.m.  EST on Sunday, November 29th at Aviator Sports & Events Center in Brooklyn.

Buffalo Beauts comeback falls short, lose to Whale in a heartbreaker

The Buffalo Beauts had a full roster and the undefeated Connecticut Whale on the ropes all game, but all it took was a lucky bounce to make it unravel.

Danielle Ward’s pass-turned-shot bounced off of a Beaut’s leg and in past Beauts goaltender Kim Sass, giving the Whale the lead (and ultimately the win) with 55 seconds remaining in the game.

The goal came after the Beauts had peppered and pestered Whale netminder Jamie Leonoff throughout the third. In fact, statistically this was Buffalo’s strongest game, as they out-shot an opponent and held them to under 30 shots on goal for the first time this season (26-25), but some key opportunities on the power play and even strength failed to result in goals.

Ward’s lucky bounce also thwarted a solid 22-save performance from Sass in her debut. The East Amherst native played in front of a supportive home crowd (including two separate cheering sections), earning the first star of the game.

“It [the support] was amazing,” she said. “I had a list of about 25 people — friends, family, you name it, old coaches, old strength coaches, coming and watching, and it was incredible to see my name on posters out there.”

Buffalo had opened the game with its best period of hockey, getting the first two offensive chances of the game and keeping up with the Whale on both sides of the puck. The defense kept Connecticut’s shooters well to the outside, and Sass was equal to every shot that did get through. Meanwhile, the new-look top line of Devon Skeats-Shelby Bram-Meghan Duggan flew down the ice, creating plenty of opportunities. After 20 minutes, one got the feeling as though a Buffalo goal was imminent.

The second period wasn’t as kind to the Beauts, as a couple of defensive breakdowns led to Whale goals. Kelly Babstock started off the scoring by picking off a pass in the neutral zone and sending a shot high over Sass’s shoulder. Ten minutes later, Kelli Stack sent a bomb from the point through the five-hole with three Beauts hovering by the faceoff dot to their goalie’s right.

“The second period we definitely gave them too much time and space,” Sass said. “We had a couple of bad breakdowns, and unfortunately we put ourselves in the position in the third period to potentially lose to a bad bounce.”

However, the Beauts weren’t going down without a fight in the final period. Skeats scored a lightning-fast goal off of a rush for her first of the year, and then Hailey Browne threw one toward Leonoff that Kourtney Kunichika redirected to tie the game up at 2.

A slew of Whale penalties led to a couple of 5-on-3 opportunities that the Beauts could not capitalize on, and as frustrations mounted on both sides, play got rougher, resulting in Skeats, Duggan, and Ward heading to their respective penalty boxes late in the third.

“There’s a lot of pride in those players wearing that Beauts logo,” co-head coach Ric Seiling said. “They have a lot to prove, that they’ve earned a spot here, they’ve worked for it, and it’s just a matter of getting past the certain limitations there were before.”

Those limitations are, of course, the aftermath of having five players held out of games due to visa issues. Skeats, Erin Zach, Lindsay Grigg, Jessica Fickel and Amanda Makela finally joined the rest of their team, resulting in what Sass called “some jitters” upon playing as a group for the first time (especially considering their limited ice time together). Though the players have done their best to stay in shape with off-ice training, skating and going through the systems are another thing altogether, and it’ll take time for everyone to get on the same page.

Still, for Skeats, who had an immediate impact on the ice, it’s a learning process she’s said she is embracing, and her excitement after the game was palpable.

“I was going so fast, I guess I just shoved it top corner and it went in, and it was like, ‘Oh my God!’” she said of her first goal. “It was a long time coming. I was really looking forward to this game, and to be able to contribute to my team is a pretty incredible feeling.”

She, along with her teammates, will look to replicate that feeling and perhaps magnify it with a win next week, once more against the Whale. Considering how close they came Sunday, it can only be a precursor of things to come — and with more time together practicing, things will likely start to click.

“I think each game you’ll see us get better and better,” Seiling said. “The more time these ladies spend on the ice together, the more in-sync they’ll get.”

Puck drop is at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, November 22, at HarborCenter. Tickets are on sale now, and fans can also watch via live streaming on NWHL Cross-Ice Pass.

Buffalo Beauts Draft Pick Updates!

The NWHL season may have just begun, but the NCAA season has been in full swing since late September, which means a host of newly-minted NWHL prospects are taking part in their final seasons of college.
The Buffalo Beauts aimed for balance during the draft in June, opting for three forwards (Sarah Lefort, Emily Janiga, Jenna Dingeldein), a blueliner (Courtney Burke), and a goaltender (Amanda Leveille). As some of them near the two-month mark in their respective seasons, how are Buffalo’s first-ever prospects doing?
(Listed in drafted order)

Courtney Burke, Wisconsin

Burke is thriving on a team that has seen some very big success lately. At 12 points so far (two goals, 10 assists), the blueliner is in a three-way tie with teammates Sydney McKibbon and Jenny Ryan for second in scoring after Annie Pankowski (20 points), and is in a multiple-way tie for 16th nationally in scoring. Outscoring its opponents 55-2, the Badgers took over the No.1 spot from Minnesota this week based on excellent play on both sides of the puck. They’ve seen very little competition in their first eight games, but likely consider their offensive output a warmup for facing tougher opponents, like the Gophers, in early December.

Sarah Lefort, Boston University

So far, the forward has four points for the Terriers (one goal, three assists) in eight games played. She’s currently in Sweden participating with Team Canada in the 4 Nations Cup, which takes place Nov. 4-8. No doubt her hard-working mentality (as attested to by her coach, Brian Durocher) helped get her on the roster, but she’ll also be part of a high-powered offense full of some of the National program’s brightest young stars.

Amanda Leveille, University of Minnesota

Leveille just suffered her first defeat, 4-3 to North Dakota, shortly before the NCAA took a bye week, but is still enjoying a relatively breezy senior season thus far as part of the defending National Champions. Rivaled only by Wisconsin when it comes to offensive firepower, the Gophers have taken nearly every opponent by storm, outscoring them 68-15 (55-11 in conference play), and are 9-1-0 overall (7-1-0 WCHA). Leveille hasn’t had much work in net, but has still been sharp, with a 1.47 GAA and a .921 save percentage through eight starts. That’s good for eighth in the nation right now.

Emily Janiga and Jenna Dingeldein, Mercyhurst

The Lakers got out to a rough start, going 0-5-1 in their first six NCAA matchups, but have begun to right the ship with a sweep of RIT over Halloween weekend in their first taste of play within the College Hockey America conference. Janiga and Dingeldein are tied along with Molly Blasen for fourth in scoring right now with five points apiece, Janiga with four goals, one assist, and Dingeldein with two goals, three assists. However, Janiga’s injury last Friday against RIT has cost her a spot on Team USA for the 4 Nations Cup. Presley Norby of Minnetonka High School (Minn.) has replaced her on the roster. The Lakers play next against Penn State this coming weekend.

The NWHL play resumes Nov. 15.

Buffalo Beauts: What’s working, what needs some work

We’re a couple of days removed from the Buffalo Beauts’ latest tilt against the Boston Pride, and it’s a great time — heading into the two-week break leading up to and through the 4 Nations Cup — to re-visit what went well and what the Beauts still need to work on.

What worked:

  • The forecheck. It was relentless throughout much of the game. The Beauts came out flying and focused, and it certainly showed, as they swarmed Brittany Ott and tried their best to get her moving. This was also a game where you saw the Beauts’ speed up close — they were either neck-and-neck or winning races to loose pucks most of the time.
  • Kelley Steadman. The forward leads the Beauts and is second in the league in goals scored after potting two more Sunday. Co-head coach Ric Seiling had nothing but praise for her post-game, calling her “a force on the ice.” She keeps finding ways to get to the net and swing things her team’s way.
  • The defense. It had some breakdowns that led to goals for Boston, but more important was the improved zone coverage and how it led to quicker clears out of the zone and better transitions the other way as the game progressed.

What needs work:

  • The penalty kill. While it’s forced two shorthanded goals so far this season, it’s also allowed more goals than any of the other teams (four, according to the NWHL’s stats page). Granted, two of the games they’ve played already have been against a team with a stacked offense, but tightening up and limiting opponents’ lanes is certainly a focus.
  • Shots against. The Beauts have a world-class goaltender in Brianne McLaughlin, and Steadman joked during post-game that “she’s one of those weird goalies who likes (lots of shots),” but her teammates are already aware of the need to not tire her out or risk injury to her in the long run. 40-plus shots a game can wear down even the best goalies, so cutting that in half or even down by 10 could keep her sharp for playoffs.
  • Finishing chances. This has become a bit of a running theme — it’s been apparent during each game that the Beauts have had good looks at their opponents, but are pushing a lot of their shots just wide or hitting the chest. Accuracy and picking shots are definitely necessary to beat any of these goalies in the NWHL.
  • Faceoffs. Meghan Duggan and Shelby Bram went 7-6 and 10-13, respectively, in the dot, but after them, no one has come close to being dominant. Possession is key, and right now the Beauts don’t quite have it yet.

Notes:

  • The game featured what looks like the first penalty shot in NWHL history, taken by Boston’s Kelly Cooke. Brianne McLaughlin made an easy deflection with the glove.

    Penalty shot awarded to Boston’s Kelly Cooke. Easily handled by @briannemcl. #BuffaloBeauts #BostonPride #NWHL

    A video posted by Angelica Renee (@reinadelaisla) on

  • Seiling mentioned a flu bug had gone through the Beauts’ locker room, and Kourtney Kunichika and Courtney Carnes were both affected, resulting in them not seeing ice basically all week. Apparently, it was a lucky flu bug for Kunichika — she recorded both her first point and her first goal in one game.
  • More from D Paige Harrington on limiting shots for McLaughlin: “We’re definitely trying to improve on that. We have a hell of a goalie who’s keeping us in the game. As forwards and even as defensemen, we’re trying to get up into the play, create shots when you can, not holding onto the puck too long, and crashing the net hard. We’re a fast team, so that’s what we want to focus on.”
  • Five players– Devon Skeats, Lindsay Grigg, Amanda Makela, Jessica Fickel and Erin Zach– are still unable to play as their visa issues get resolved. Seiling on once they get into the fold: “When you’ve got as many players here as we do, I don’t think it’ll be as difficult as some might think. You wonder about their game shape… There’s one thing about being in practice shape, but you get into game shape by being in the game, and that’s a totally different aspect of it. They might know the game plan, but getting them up to speed with the rest of the girls, I think that’ll be the biggest thing.” As of yet, there has been no new information regarding visas for players.
  • It was Father-Daughter Day at the HarborCenter Sunday, and a bunch of the Beauts’ dads were on hand to watch their daughters play. Hayley Williams and her father Tom graciously agreed to appear for the media, and it was an emotional moment for everyone involved. Her father revealed how he would drive 12 hours each way to northern Minnesota and back to watch her play, and Williams quipped, “Now it’s only eight.”
  • Tom Williams on watching Hayley play: “It’s almost unbelievable. I’m so proud. That’s all I can say. She’s really worked hard her entire life. I saw the opener, and my first thought was, ‘She did it.’ She’s playing on a great team. It’s just a fantastic experience.”
  • Williams on her hockey bond with her father: “It would be weird if he wasn’t at a game. For 25 years of my life he’s been at every game. It’s nothing different now than last year at college. He’s just been there the whole time. He’s my guy, you know?”
  • With two weeks to regroup, everyone stressed the need to focus on sharpening skills on and off the ice. Seiling mentioned working on both sides of the puck and working on creating opportunities in front of the net as on-ice focuses for his players.

 

Be sure to catch 4 Nations Cup action starting Nov. 4. Most games will be live-streamed. Meanwhile, the Beauts return to action against the Whale Nov. 15 at HarborCenter. The puck drops at 3:30 p.m. ET.