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.