Isobel Cup, Game One: Whale edge Beauts, Pride steamroll Riveters for series leads

Game One of the Isobel Cup had what some might call the expected results, with both higher seeds — No. 1 Boston Pride and No. 2 Connecticut Whale — pulling out wins on their home ice.

Whale 3, Beauts 0: The Buffalo Beauts threw 35 shots at Jaimie Leonoff, but none found the back of the net as the Connecticut Whale goaltender earned herself the first shutout in her team’s history, 3-0, at Chelsea Piers CT in Game One of the Isobel Cup semifinals.

The win gives Connecticut the upper hand over Buffalo in the best-of-three series, as well as a chance to sweep Saturday night. The Beauts managed to have a solid game in the first and third periods despite having both of their top scorers — Kelley Steadman and Meghan Duggan — out of the lineup, likely both due to coaching conflicts.

Both teams played an even game throughout, with an emphasis on defense. The Beauts came out strong on the forecheck, attempting to throw the Whale off early; however, Leonoff was equal to the task, withstanding several rushes from the Skeats-Kunichika-Browne line and the tandem of Erin Zach and Jessica Fickel. However, Connecticut found its legs toward the end of the first, closing the gap in shots 11-9 before the first buzzer.

Special teams took over in the second period, with Buffalo losing its composure and Connecticut capitalizing. Kelli Stack broke the scoreless tie at 9:12 on a 2-on-1 with Shiann Darkangelo at even strength, but the Beauts’ mounting frustration created a line to the penalty box, allowing the Whale to get comfortable on their end of the ice. Five minutes after Stack’s goal, Jessica Koizumi found Sam Faber on the doorstep to double the score. The Beauts had their fair share of chances on the power play, but both Leonoff and the Whale’s defense did well to keep them off the scoresheet, Leonoff moving well post-to-post and hanging onto her rebounds, while the defense got plenty of sticks in the lanes and deflected shot after shot.

Buffalo pushed hard to even the score in the third period, but by that point Leonoff was untouchable, withstanding a shooting gallery (the Whale were outshot 14-2 in the third period) to preserve the shutout and the crucial first win for her team. Kelly Babstock added an empty netter shorthanded in the final minute of the game.

The Beauts will look to force a third game Saturday night at Chelsea Piers, and they will hopefully do so with at least Steadman in the lineup; the practice forward was with Robert Morris University at the CHA Tournament (ironically being held in Buffalo this weekend), but RMU lost to Mercyhurst Friday afternoon, so barring any other conflicts, I’d imagine she’d be making her way to Connecticut for tomorrow evening’s game.

Puck drop is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chelsea Piers CT. 

Pride 6, Riveters 0: Jenny Scrivens withstood 56 saves and allowed six goals as the Pride barreled over New York, 6-0, at Ray Bourque Arena in Boston. The overmatched Riveters committed six penalties, three of which the Pride were able to convert on, and Brianna Decker and Jillian Dempsey combined for seven points on the evening (Dempsey with four, Decker with three). Brittany Ott made 17 saves for Boston in the win, earning the first shutout in the playoffs in the Pride’s history.

On Denna Day, Fins Down, First Place, and Farewell to Harvard

On February 14th, the crowd at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Center turned out not in the familiar Harvard crimson, but in yellow. While the Boston Pride’s last home game was a tensely fought match with their most heated rival, the Connecticut Whale, the Pride’s focus was on teammate Denna Laing. For the first time since her injury during the Women’s Winter Classic on December 31st, Laing joined her teammates on the ice for a photo prior to warm-ups as well as fistbumps and hugs at the start of the game. The merchandise table quickly sold out of the wristbands and adult-sized shirts whose proceeds go to help Denna Laing. (If you’re interested in other ways to help Denna Laing in addition to donating money, see my post from last week.) Over 1900 people were in the stands of the Bright-Landry Center, the highest attendance since the Pride’s home opener on November 22nd.

Sunday’s game was the Pride’s fifth against the Whale, whom the Pride have now seen for three of their past four games. The Whale remained undefeated until December 27th, when the Pride won 2-1 with a shortened roster than included both Laing and Pride GM Hailey Moore, who signed a single-day contract with the league to play. Since then, the Pride have held steady against the Whale. Some of the Pride’s success can certainly be attributed to overall defensive improvement, but their growing familiarity with the Whale has also worked in their favor. The Pride remain the only team to defeat the Whale: they’ve now done so four times, all in regulation. This weekend’s 4-2 win pushed the Pride into first place in the league standings, putting them at 25 points to the Whale’s 24.

Jordan Smelker led the Pride on that push to first place with a three-point outing on Sunday that made her NWHL’s Player of the Week. She scored the Pride’s first goal late in the first period and the game-winning midway through the third, finishing off with an assist on Gigi Marvin’s empty-netter. Pride captain Brianna Decker scored the Pride’s remaining goal early in the third. The Whale leveled only 12 shots on goal to the Pride’s 37, spending a full ten minutes of the game short-handed and much of the rest hemmed in their own zone. Goaltender Brittany Ott allowed two goals, putting her at a .833 SVP for the game, lower than her .927 season average, but the early lead and strong defense from the Pride never let them seem vulnerable.

After the game, the atmosphere in the locker room was jubilant, no doubt helped by a huge box of Top Shelf cookies. ” I feel pretty strong about fins down,” Ott said of every Pride fan’s favorite hashtag. Her outlook on the Pride’s final matchup with the Whale next weekend was pragmatic. “I think we just have to keep plugging away at what we’ve been doing. I think we’ve been gaining a lot of momentum as we’ve been going along this season. We can’t go in there overconfident or cocky or anything like that, they’ll definitely capitalize on that. They’re a good team, they’re smart players. So we just have to keep focusing on us and improving this week and we’ll be ready.”

The Pride will host the 3rd or 4th seed for the semifinal round of the inaugural Isobel Cup playoffs at Raymond Bourque Arena in Beverly, but this is their final game at Harvard. Former Harvard women’s hockey captain Jillian Dempsey said of her return to Bright-Landry, “Everybody always gives me a hard time because of all my Harvard hockey love—” (She was interrupted by riotous laughter from locker room.) “I’m a little biased, but it’s the best sheet of ice in the whole country. ” Ott was clearly moved by the turnout for the game. “It was incredible to see the wave going around there a few times,” she said. “That was like something I definitely had to take in for a second because that was just an awesome feeling.”

With a five-win streak behind them, the Boston Pride have hit their stride as they head into the final two games of the regular season. “They’re a tough team to beat,” said Connecticut Whale forward Brittany Dougherty, who scored her first goal in Sunday’s game. “They’re fast, they’re skilled, they have a couple Olympians that can just put the puck in the net. The only way to beat them is to work harder than them.”

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.

New York Riveters Lose 6-1 To Connecticut Whale

Y’all, it was all looking so good. Well, it was looking less like the New York Riveters would be unchangeably ‘riveted’ (…get it) to their third place position in the standings, at least.

After the last meeting between the Connecticut Whale and Riveters ended in a shootout, and the Riveters capably took down the Buffalo Beauts 7-3 the time before that, it didn’t seem like too much to think they’d settled into their play as individuals and as a team, and the huge disparity between the top two teams of the NWHL and the bottom two might start to level out. At the halfway point of the season (this game was number 10 of 18 regular season games), it certainly seemed like the right time for the Riveters to get their feet under them.

And then… 6-1, Connecticut Whale wins. So, maybe not on the whole “comeback time” thing.

The score, as remarkably lopsided as it is, wasn’t even the most unbelievable part of the game—not by a considerable margin. While of course I’d love to diminish the severity of being beaten by five goals (the Rivs’ worst defeat since October 18th’s 7-1 Boston Pride victory) (wailing emoji), there were real issues beyond the Riveters’ inability to find the back of the net or shut down the Whale offense.

The game started slow, with only a few shots on goal from each side and no goals through the first ten minutes. Even after the Rivs’ Packer went to the box for crosschecking, and the Whale’s Darkangelo scored on the powerplay to make it 1-0, the first period was notably sluggish for both teams. Line changes for the Riveters looked a little slapdash, and as early as fifteen minutes into the game Fritz-Ward made full use of her ‘A’ to voice concerns about the officiating.

The issues with the officiating were less apparent to me, watching via Cross-Ice Pass but undeniable through the second. Speaking of, I commend the league on the improved quality of that product. Well, barring the outage in the second period. But we remember what it was like in October, right? Right. Meanwhile, the Whale racked up the points—or, rather, Shiann Darkangelo racked up the points. With a natural hat-trick off of a powerplay, a shorthand, and an even strength goal before the game was even half over, Darkangelo was the Whale for a little while there. Frustration was (understandably) growing for the Riveters, especially as the Whale’s Doyle scored to make it 4-0 a mere four minutes into the third.

Nana Fujimoto went out after the fourth goal against, and Scrivens took over in net. Only a few minutes after coming in, Scrivens received the gift that keeps giving… Danielle Ward of the Whale charging the net. While Ward was sent to the box, the Riveters, including Hanrahan, were visibly incensed. The game had been relatively rough up to that point, with four penalties served by each team, but, like I mentioned earlier, there were calls being consistently missed.

At about 11:30 into the third period, there was a serious mishap including a Whale player’s stick and Madison Packer. The specifics weren’t clear, it seemed, to anyone, but it ended with Packer injured. It took quite awhile for her to sit up, let alone to stand and skate, assisted, from the ice. She left the game and there was no designation of any kind of blame as far as penalties went, but it was a truly unnerving moment and I’m sure I join the rest of the women’s hockey world in wishing Madison Packer all the best in her recovery.

That incident, plus a long 50 minutes of uncontrolled play and the undignified cherry on top that was Kelly Babstock’s devastating fifth unanswered goal for the Whale, were just a few of the apparent causes of the Not Great Thing that happened with seven minutes left in the game. Call it what you will (and Twitter certainly did)—line brawl, ‘a few punches to the head,’ donnybrook—the Riveters and the Whale got into it. As far as I can tell, the Rivs weren’t pleased with the Whale’s treatment of Scrivens, and as Riveters captain Ashley Johnston played bodyguard in front of the net, a Whale essentially leveled her (the penalty went to Long, but initial reports were Dougherty—I can’t say with absolute certainty which player began it). It was a case of players taking out their frustrations with the game, and taking matters of on-ice justice into their own hands as they felt it wasn’t being handled properly through the refs and linesmen. Frankly, the only phrase that comes to mind for the fight itself is “well, that escalated quickly,” as the scuffle became just short of a bench-clearer in seconds.

That it happened at all was pretty unusual, but the broadcast handling of the fight was possibly even stranger. Almost as soon as the fists had stopped flying, the Cross-Ice Pass broadcast showed multiple replays of an ice-level viewpoint of the NWHL’s stars punching each other in the head. Obviously, hockey is a contact sport. That’s what the padding is for. But the league has been sort of cagey heretofore about its policies surrounding fighting, with much discussion of whether their policies are fair given the length of the season, the rate of compensation, and the safety/concussion issues inherent in hockey, especially without the structural support that leagues like the NHL at least purport to have in place.

I’m not innocent of the little thrill when a fight breaks out. But that thrill dies. The illicit excitement of animal instinct appearing on ice (or, worse, the gross idea that women fighting each other is titillating) is not worth the very real risks that fighting presents to players. I’m absolutely of the opinion that the NWHL should have very little leniency around fighting from this initial season, and do their level best to keep it out of the league. As a fan, I care about these games and the players, and their throwing down is 100% not what I’m here for.

In the fallout from the fight, the Riveters faced a 5-0 deficit with seven minutes of overlapping penalties to play after the Whale’s Long was ejected and Riveter Ashley Johnston went to the box for roughing. Lyudmila Belyakova scored the Rivs’ only goal on the powerplay to block a shutout, but as soon as Scrivens was pulled from net for the extra attacker, the Whale’s Kelly Stack scored to make it 6-1. And then it ended.

Oh, yeah, and it was Star Wars night. Really, the only reference I can make is that the Riveters were crushed in a garbage compactor by a potent combination of ineffective officiating, defensive breakdown, and player injury. Something something Death Star.

Next time: the Beauts might overtake the Riveters, and six other reasons to give up on 2016 already.

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.

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 lose to the Connecticut Whale, outshot and out of time

The Buffalo Beauts ended another game outshot and out of time, as a couple of late goals by the Connecticut Whale led to them getting the win, 5-2, at HarborCenter Sunday.

Just moments after Kelly Steadman scored to pull the Beauts to within a goal, Maggie Giamo took a body checking penalty that Connecticut’s Molly Engstrom cashed in on 11 seconds in, putting the game out of reach for a team that until that point didn’t look like what the stats were suggesting. An empty-netter by Kaleigh Fratkin sealed the deal for the 2-0 Whale, who blew out the Riveters 4-1 in their home opener at Chelsea Piers.

The Whale struck first in the opening period, as Alyssa Wohlfeiler got behind the Buffalo Beauts’ defense and took advantage of a rebound by Brianne McLaughlin. But Meghan Duggan scored a shorthanded goal with 3:48 to go in the frame to tie it up, and everything looked good despite the fact the Beauts were being outshot by nearly double. The offense was getting good looks, crisper passes, and better breakouts, and McLaughlin had rebounded from her goal against to make some point-blank saves.

Connecticut poured on 16 more shots to Buffalo’s eight over the course of the second period, but aside from Samantha Faber redirecting a Fratkin slapper from the blueline, nothing got past McLaughlin. The Beauts in turn had plenty of opportunities that lacked finish; chances and breakaways by Giamo, Steadman, Emily Pfalzer and others missed, were fanned on or went sailing wide of the crease. Still, only down by a goal heading into the final period, things were looking up.

Buffalo dominated the first part of the third, battling for and maintaining possession and throwing plenty of rubber Laden’s way. At one point it even looked as though the game was tied, but the shot by Kourtney Kunichika was disallowed due to an apparent crease violation. Then Connecticut’s Kate Buesser spun Annmarie Cellino around on her heels and slipped the puck through McLaughlin’s pads, making it 3-1. This would be the eventual game-winner.

Though Steadman’s goal galvanized both the crowd and the Beauts with less than three minutes to go, the penalty on Giamo was the backbreaker, setting Buffalo back on its heels at a moment when it looked poised to at least try and tie it up. Engstrom sent a strong wrister from the blueline that got through multiple players in front of McLaughlin, making it 4-2 and eventually keeping the Beauts looking for a win.

It’s tempting to make assumptions at this point about this Beauts team, but there are things to take into account. This is a team that is still trying to come together and figure itself out; moreover, they’re doing that without five of their rostered players, who are still out of the lineup with visa issues. They’re getting production and good play from the players they need it the most from (namely, Duggan and Pfalzer, as well as McLaughlin). Plus, it took them much less time to settle in and play a good game than it did last week, which is a step in the right direction.

There were a lot of good things from both rostered and unrostered players alike; though the finish isn’t there yet, Megan Bozek’s shot certainly is, and Giamo (aside from her untimely penalty) and Hailey Browne were all over the ice, getting their chances when they could find them. It’s a matter of time before things start clicking for them, and it may take even longer than desired once the missing players — Devon Skeats, Lindsay Grigg, Erin Zach, Jessica Fickel, and Amanda Makela — come into the fold. But that’s what patience is for. It’s just Game Two, after all.

The Beauts try again next week when the Boston Pride come back into town. Puck drop is at 3:30 p.m. at HarborCenter.

Notes: Final shot totals were 43-34 Whale… Sunday’s game at HarborCenter was the Beauts’ Strides for the Cure game for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). The Beauts wore special black and pink jerseys that were signed and auctioned off after the game ended. Erie County Medical Center CEO Richard Cleland took the ceremonial puck drop with team captains/representatives Emily Pfalzer and Kaleigh Fratkin, and the ECMC Mobile Mammography Coach (which provides mammograms to women in underserved parts of the community) was outside HarborCenter early in the afternoon.

Second Look: Buffalo Beauts against the Connecticut Whale

It’s been a few days since the Buffalo Beauts opened their season at HarborCenter against the Boston Pride. They dropped that game 4-1, but got better progressively throughout and have some promise heading into next week’s match up against the Connecticut Whale.

Let’s look at what worked for the Beauts and what didn’t against the Pride:

What Worked:

  • Brianne McLaughlin. Aside from a five-hole goal by Hilary Knight, the Beauts netminder did a fantastic job. She kept her team competitive, moving well, keeping the pads down, maintaining excellent position and playing the puck only when necessary, allowing her defenders to do their jobs against a loaded Boston offense. McLaughlin finished the night with 39 saves, prompting teammate Meghan Duggan to call her a “stud” during the post-game media scrum.
  • Their speed. I keep saying it, but the Beauts are a quick team. Their best chances came mostly off the rush, catching Boston by surprise heading into the offensive zone. Once they got the D confused and goaltender Brittany Ott moving a little bit, they had some good opportunities to score… but we’ll get to that in a minute.

What Got Better:

  • The power play. Boston is a tough team and they got more undisciplined as the game went on. In fact, it was a 5-on-3 that led to the Beauts’ first goal, by Kelley Steadman. Once Buffalo was able to establish a presence, they moved the puck well and took a few more shots than they had been earlier in the game.
  • The offense in general. It took a while for Buffalo’s forwards to get out of their own zone, plus tough D and neutral zone play by the Pride forced them back, but the third period (again) saw their best opportunities yet. They entered the zone well, maintained puck possession and did well on the backcheck to force turnovers.

What Needs Work:

  • Finishing chances. So many shots pushed just wide, especially on the rush where they were getting them early on. Ott is a good goalie, but she tends to move a little early, and there were more than a couple of instances where that could have been exploited, if not for a wide shot. Finish does come with time, so I’m hoping that’s the case here.
  • Communication, especially in the defensive zone. Line changes were a little jumbled at times, as was who was marking whom in the D zone, which led to a few chances going Boston’s way. Again, something that will probably come with more time playing with each other, but still a valid concern.

Odds and Ends:

  • Duggan had a busy night. She tallied an assist on Steadman’s goal with a beautiful cross-ice pass, but before that she’d made a beautiful drive up the right wing that was foiled by a sprawling Kacey Bellamy. She also took the Beauts’ first penalty, a boarding minor with 6:28 to go in the game.
  • Official attendance was marked at 1,231, but could easily have been more, since it was definitely standing-room only as the puck dropped.
  • Co-head coach Ric Seiling has two words to describe Beauts D Emily Pfalzer: Tasmanian Devil. “She’s fast, she’s nonstop, she’s persistent… she’s everything you look for in a hockey player,” he said of the diminutive blueliner, who was all over the ice Sunday.
  • Pfalzer, a native of nearby Getzville, on the crowd at HarborCenter: “It was unbelievable. I don’t think any other place would have a crowd like this, so it was awesome… I wouldn’t expect anything else from Buffalo.”
  • McLaughlin on the Pride: “We know they’re a fast team, we know they’re strong, and I was actually impressed with how we handled it. They have a little more experience playing with each other in Boston, and we’re kind of coming together here, but we battled.”

The Beauts drop the puck again at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday against the Whale. Tickets are available in-house or via nwhl.co. Live streaming via YouTube is available via NWHL Cross-Ice Pass, and games are archived on YouTube after being aired.

Jessica Koizumi, Jamie Leonoff, Connecticut Whale Make History

Jessica Koizumi, forward for the Connecticut Whale, made history this weekend by scoring the first official goal in Whale history, and in NWHL history, during a 4-1 win over the New York Riveters. Kelly Babstock, Shiann Darkangelo and Kelli Stack also added tallies for the Whale, while Brooke Ammerman enters the record books as the first goal scorer for the New York Riveters. Jaimie Leonoff stopped 35 of 36 shots to lead the Whale to their first ever victory, while Nana Fujimoto of the Riveters stopped 25 of 29.

Koizumi opened the scoring with a beautiful snappy wrister 2:28 into the game, but after that the period descended into a quick trade off of penalties, each team racking up three minors as the Whale took the lead into the second period.

Ammerman tied the game at one four minutes into the second period, but after that, it was all Whale as Stack, Darkangelo and Babstock scored their own record goals to make it 4-1 by the time the final whistle blew.

The Riveters played well, end-stopped by Team Japan star Nana Fujimoto in-goal, but the Whale’s talented group of forwards overwhelmed the defence, and at times left Fujimoto stranded and helpless, despite the Riveters outshooting the Whale 36-29.

The Whale take the ice again next Sunday against the Buffalo Beauts, and you can stream the game live with the NWHL’s Cross Ice Pass.

 

My Three Stars of the Game

  1. Jessica Koizumi (Whale)

Koizumi impressed on the Blades, and looks like she’s going to continue to do so in the NWHL, scoring the opening goal, and looking dangerous for much of the game on a line with Olympian Kelli Stack.

  1. Jaimie Leonoff (Whale)

On paper, Fujimoto seems to be the better goalie, with more international experience, and at 5’4, has a much more difficult job. In her most recent outing with Team Japan at the IIHF World Championships, she recorded 128 saves and a save percentage of .937, in addition to being selected as Goaltender of the Tournament. But on this occasion, occasionally patchy defence on the part of the Riveters, and facing shots from players like Kelli Stack (1G, 2A), meant that Leonoff earned the victory, finishing with 35 saves and official first star honours from the league.

  1. Kelli Stack (Whale)

Two time silver medalist Kelli Stack scored the game winning goal and added two primary assists to the scoresheet on Sunday night. At times it felt like she was all over the ice, and Fujimoto and the Riveters defence definitely struggled to contain her for much of the game. She’s my pick to watch for the rest of the season.