An even game in the first period turned into a rout, as the Buffalo Beauts overwhelmed the New York Riveters’ defense and goaltender Nana Fujimoto, winning 5-1 at Harborcenter Sunday and clinching the third seed in the Isobel Cup playoffs.
The Beauts also made a little bit of history Sunday, becoming the first team in NWHL history to have a mascot. Krusher (with a K), donated by the KIA Memorial Roadmarch, made her debut at Harborcenter, dropping the ceremonial puck with the players and tossing out tee shirts to the crowd. Perhaps Krusher proved to be the lucky charm the Beauts needed to pull ahead of New York for good.
Defender Megan Bozek had three points in the win, including the goal to start off the Beauts’ scoring. The entire blueline in fact stepped up and jumped into the play, with Emily Pfalzer adding an assist and Paige Harrington and Lindsay Grigg having excellent games.
Bozek’s goal came in the first period as she carried the puck into the zone, slapping it past Fujimoto’s right pad as she crossed the ice. It was a break for the Beauts, who had only four shots recorded on net despite a number of rushes into the zone; meanwhile, the Riveters had eight, with much of the play being stymied in the neutral zone for both teams.
The Riveters briefly tied it in the second period — Bray Ketchum made good on a penalty shot she received after Bozek hooked her on a breakaway. But with eight minutes to go, Bozek sent Duggan on a beautiful drive that resulted in her going top shelf on Fujimoto to break the tie.
From that point forward, it was all Beauts. While the Riveters executed good defensive strategy for much of the game, staying low, clogging the middle of the ice and collapsing onto whoever carried the puck into the zone, the Beauts’ relentless forecheck finally found its way to the net in the third period. Hayley Williams threw a shot from a bad angle to the front of the net that Fujimoto stopped, but Tatiana Rafter was there to collect and put home the rebound for her second goal of the season, and then Kourtney Kunichika quickly added her ninth of the year to pad the lead. Despite a timeout and pulling their goalie, the Riveters failed to generate much on offense, and Kelley Steadman sealed the win with an empty-net goal.
General manager Linda Mroz said the kind of effort the Beauts put forth Sunday was what she had envisioned seeing all season after putting together the roster.
“I’m blaming it on the mascot,” she joked, adding that having Krusher there to pep up the lighter-than-usual crowd definitely put a positive spin on the afternoon.
Indeed, Sunday’s game seemed to be the best the team has played all year, with all three components working on the ice at the same time. The penalty kill was solid as well, keeping New York off the board on all four attempts. Forward Hailey Browne said despite the few lulls in the game, Buffalo finished exactly how it intended to.
“We didn’t want a one-goal game, we didn’t want OT,” she said. “We wanted to bury them.”
And bury them the Beauts did, both in goals and shots; after being outshot 8-4 in that opening period, Buffalo came back to dominate possession, outshooting the Riveters 30-18. Brianne McLaughlin wasn’t kept very busy, but still earned the third star of the game for her performance in net.
Defense was definitely a focus in earlier practices as well, according to both Browne and Pfalzer, and it showed — not only did the blueline step up offensively, but it also kept the Riveters well clear of McLaughlin, allowing her to see most shots and forcing wide other opportunities. Harrington, Grigg, and others on the ice also made great individual efforts to fend off fast breaks and passes inside the middle.
“Everyone had a great game,” Pfalzer said of her team’s effort, particularly that of her defensive corps. “It was awesome to see everyone produce.”
The Beauts now have one weekend left in the regular season, and it’s against the team they began it with — the Boston Pride, fresh off of clinching first place in the league after beating the Connecticut Whale 5-3. The points don’t matter quite as much as they might have before, but Browne said the team still wants to finish the season on a high note.
“They’re a very good team,” she said. “We want to just work on our positioning, brush up on our special teams and everything like that, use it as practice — but we really want to win these games.”
As for Connecticut, although they are the one team the Beauts have not managed to beat this season, it should make for an interesting matchup. The competitiveness and intensity have been present in every game between these two teams, particularly after playing so many games against each other early in the year (and all the bad blood built up that implies). But the Beauts also seem to be turning a page at the right time, and it’s something that could possibly alter the course of events heading into the final.
“It’s just a matter of showing up, and what team shows up,” Mroz said. “When we worry about our game, we don’t have to worry about the other team, so basically if the Beauts that showed up today play, and we finish, I can say we’re going to be competitive no matter what.
“We’ve been competitive with Connecticut all throughout the season, so we’ve gotta go, and we’ve gotta go to win.”
The Beauts and Pride face off in their final regular season game Sunday, Feb. 28 at Harborcenter. Live streaming is available via NWHL Cross-Ice Pass, or buy tickets either at the door or on nwhl.co/buy-tickets.