PHOTO CRED: Troy Parla
LOWELL, MA - The Buffalo Beauts got off to a 1-0 lead over the Boston Pride in the first two minutes of the Isobel Cup Finals and never looked back. Despite a third place finish in the regular season standings, Buffalo showed that it had all of the pieces of a championship team and walked away with the NWHL’s second Isobel Cup Championship after a 3-2 win over the Pride. Boston was the heavy favorite coming into the game having amassed a near perfect regular season record and having dominated the Connecticut Whale in their semifinal matchup just two nights before.
With a one game, winner take all format, the stakes were high but the circumstances were all too familiar to the Pride and the Beauts. The teams faced off against one another in last season’s championship bracket as well, but with quite a different result when Boston took home the 2016 inaugural season honors. Although some faces had changed, the core of both teams were largely the same, making the return to the finals all the more meaningful.
The action went into the Buffalo zone off of the opening faceoff, but Buffalo goaltender (and later named MVP) Brianne McLaughlin turned the shots aside easily, the first of what would be an unbelievable 60 saves on the night. Boston fired more than a shot per minute throughout the game; the Beauts were credited with 15 blocked shots in addition to McLaughlin’s saves in (and sometimes out of) the paint.
With only 1:44 elapsed on the clock, Megan Bozek broke in over the Boston blueline and rocketed her signature slapshot at the net, hitting the inside of the post and beating Boston’s Brittany Ott on her glove side. The goal put Buffalo up by one and sent the message that Buffalo was out to even the score from last season’s finals.
The period continued with chances at both ends; a two on one rush on McLaughlin had the crowd shaking their heads as Bozek and McLaughlin teamed up to turn the Pride chance aside. Buffalo charged back with controlled possession in the Boston zone between newcomer Hayley Scamurra (who in only three games with the Beauts, has been a part of three very big wins, and collected five points herself) and Ashley Vesci to set up Emily Janiga in front of the net for Buffalo’s second goal.
Amidst the goal celebration, the crowd was stunned. In typical Boston fashion, the shots heavily favored the Pride, but Buffalo had broken through with two early goals from Bozek and Janiga to made it seem like deja-vu from the Beauts’ Friday night performance; however, Boston was far from finished. The Pride refused to relent and give McLaughlin an easy night, and a scramble in front of the net found the goaltender without her stick making yet another series of stops on the Boston attack. At the other end, Ott too was making her mark, giving up few rebounds and minimizing any further scoring chances. The period ended with a penalty only half served by Buffalo, sending the Pride into the second on the man advantage for nearly a minute.
The pace of the second period mirrored that of the first with Boston players like Meghan Duggan taking heavy shots from the point and once again the Buffalo defensive unit answering with saves and blocked shots notably one from defenseman Paige Harrington that looked to almost certainly be bound for the scoreboard. There was a forcefield around the Buffalo net it seemed, and in no time, Buffalo had countered yet again when Corinne Buie chased down a 50/50 puck in the neutral zone and fought the Boston defender all the way to Ott who covered all but mere inches of space across the ice that Buie was able to find to slip in the eventual game winner.
“I’m not sure how the puck got out to where it was,” Buie said of the play. “But I saw it near the blueline and there was a Boston defender there. I turned the jets on and I somehow got there and I took it far post and I stuck it past Ott.”
Buie’s goal chased Ott from the paint and was replaced by Boston’s Lauren Slebodnick. The goaltending change sparked the Pride who returned fire on McLaughlin. Each and every time, she came up big, snaring a potent shot from Gigi Marvin, forcing a shot off the crossbar (which was reviewed and consequently fruitless), and a hard drive by Alyssa Gagliardi.
Going into the third, the Pride had yet to post a goal, a complete anomaly when reflecting on their 73 tallies and 16-1 record from the regular season. But as fans and opponents alike were aware, Boston’s deep pool of talent could change that at any second and Boston was going to put up a fight.
“Boston’s a team that will capitalize on every mistake that another team makes,” Bozek reflected later. “So we had to make sure we were winning those battles.”
The crowd began to rally behind the Pride, with cheers beginning to echo throughout the building, urging them on in the final minutes. Much like in the period before, the Pride started out the final frame on the power play, and once again continued to pepper McLaughlin with shots, each time the unflappable netminder was up to the task. Although no goals became of it, as Buffalo returned to full strength and the Pride seemed to continue to build on the momentum from the man advantage. Nearly every Boston possession in the Buffalo zone was thrown toward the net in an attempt to catch the right bounce and break McLaughlin’s shutout.
The Pride began to lean heavily on their tried and true snipers like Kacey Bellamy, and setting up 2017 Hardest Shot winner Blake Bolden on several occasions to send flurries of teammates in for rebounds (that McLaughlin seldom gave up) and making fans on both sides hold their breath in anticipation.
With sixteen minutes remaining on the clock, the power in the Tsongas Center flickered and seemed to jolt the Pride into another gear yet. Despite the inevitable exhaustion of both teams, as the minutes ticked by, slowly but surely the playoff adrenaline kicked in. Boston began to come to life with a new intensity, quickly cycling players down low on the Buffalo defense, trying to disrupt McLaughlin and force her to scramble. But the entire Beaut defensive unit was quick to react, clearing any rebounds and knocking pucks away from the front of the net. The Pride threw everything they had at McLaughlin - a shorthanded, one timed shot from Rachel Llanes and an immediate shot from a Buffalo zone faceoff from Marvin all came up short preserving Buffalo’s three goal lead.
Finally, in the final five minutes the Pride’s persistence paid off when Alex Carpenter put away a power play goal and breathed new life into the Boston bench; a 3-1 game was now not out of the question for a team well known for their ability to come back from behind. But as the seconds ticked on, the Beauts maintained their footing and refused to give in. The Pride pulled Slebodnick for the extra attacker just before the two minute mark forcing heavy pressure in the Buffalo zone resulting in several icings and the Beauts unable to get fresh legs on the ice. The Pride continued to attack and were rewarded with a second goal, but with only 4.2 seconds on the clock and a faceoff at center ice to follow, it was too little too late.
In a preseason interview, Beauts’ Captain Emily Pfalzer made it very clear that there was unfinished business with Boston. “We had a little sour taste in our mouth at the end of the season losing in the finals,” she insisted. The goal? “Definitely to win the Isobel Cup.”
By contrast, Sunday’s matchup made Beauts forward Corinne Buie the only NWHL athlete to have won two consecutive Isobel Cups, having secured one with Boston in that matchup last season.
“It has just been an amazing experience,” Buie reflected. “I got to play a bigger role on the team this year so it means a lot to me this year to win this Cup. Buffalo has never brought home a championship trophy for professional hockey, so I couldn’t be happier to bring one home.”
Perhaps the most talked about athlete of the night, was Buffalo goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, playing in what would be her final game before retiring from her professional hockey career. McLaughlin faced 60 shots over the course of the night, but the humble netminder reflected the win as a true team effort.
“I felt great,” McLaughlin beamed. “We knew exactly what we had to do and that was just get all over them, block shots and be in the way, be annoying and that’s exactly what we did, so it made my job a little easier.”
Additionally, McLaughlin credited her goaltending partner, Amanda Leveille, for her role in the process. “We each just had to focus on one game, so we’ve been going back and forth all year and that’s worked out for us and we get along really well and it makes it a lot more fun - sharing the net and she’s the one that got us here.”
“We have three good goalies,” interjected Pfalzer, “what can you say?”
The win for Buffalo was truly a team effort and Bozek, too agreed. “If you see how Emily walked in here, limping,” Bozek pointed out. “She blocked two huge shots that could have potentially been goals late in the third period - that’s a sacrifice it takes from every teammate.”
From back to front, the Beauts are aware of the true team environment that carried them through to the end. “We had fun out there, “Bozek added. “We communicated well, we played as a team. Beauts hockey as people would say, is a ‘grindy’ style of play but we proved that that could work today so I’m glad that we were all able to be a part of it, even the players that didn’t dress today, they’re as much a part of it as we were out there on the ice.”