ALL PHOTOS BY MICHAEL HETZEL
The Buffalo Beauts arguably possess one of the top forward lines in the NWHL. Yet while much of the spotlight is shone upon the top trio of Hayley Scamurra, Maddie Elia, and Dani Cameranesi, no one should overlook Buffalo's secondary unit -- rookie sensation Julianna Iafallo, robust original NWHLer Kelly Babstock, and veteran Beaut Emily Janiga.
"I think we're finally starting to gel together," Janiga said about she and her linemates. "We've got a few games now together under our belts, and we've got a different dynamic. We've got someone who's been in the league since Day One, someone fresh out of college, and myself -- I've been in and out of the league. Together I think we've been doing a really good job rallying together. I think it's the perfect time to start gelling together."
The Beauts return to HarborCenter on Saturday for arguably one of the biggest games of the season, hosting the Boston Pride, who sit in second place two points ahead of the Beauts. Puck drop is set for 1:30 PM, and tickets are available at NWHL.zone/tickets.
While Iafallo and Babstock are certainly capturing the hearts of Buffalo fans this season, Janiga has already done so. It is quite commonplace at a Beauts home game to look up into the stands and see an entire section filled with Janiga supporters, mostly family and friends. They even bring along enlarged cardboard cutouts of her to offer up their support.
When she skates alongside Iafallo and Babstock, it is Janiga who comes across as the glue of this particular unit. The current 2018-19 season marks Janiga's return to the NWHL and to the Beauts after spending a lone season playing in China with the CWHL's Vanke Rays during 2017-18. A native of nearby East Aurora, New York, the 24-year-old forward was selected 16th overall in the 2015 NWHL Draft by the Beauts. Her first professional season came in 2016-17 when she helped guide the Beauts to the Isobel Cup by recording three goals and an assist in two playoff games.
Since her return to the Beauts, Janiga has scored two goals and an assist through 11 games this season. She has won a whopping 68% of her face-offs which is the most for any member of the Beauts that has taken at least 20 draws -- Janiga has taken 71 of them so far.
In Babstock's case, this is her first season playing in Buffalo after three straight seasons with the Connecticut Whale. Interestingly enough, not only were Janiga and Babstock rivals earlier in their NWHL careers, but they faced each other routinely during their collegiate careers too - Janiga with Mercyhurst University and Babstock with Quinnipiac University.
"Definitely a rival, even going back to college hockey," Janiga explained about Babstock. "One of my first games was against Quinnipiac, and I have a vivid memory of playing against her. Definitely love having her on my team rather than playing against her. But having her as a linemate, she just has that energy for not just me but for everyone on the team. You just see the pure joy on her face out there, and you can see the pictures that we've captured in the last couple games. I think she gets more excited for everyone else's goals than they do. She's like our little hype girl out there."
Janiga has been in Iafallo's skates before. She was once the fresh-faced rookie straight from college who had newly joined the team. Janiga recognizes that Iafallo has exceedingly held her own all throughout this season. Combining all three players together has ripened further as time has gone along.
"I'd say quickly, but definitely over time," Janiga said when asked how the chemistry formed between the trio. "I think all three of us are pretty easygoing. Like I said, Babs is our little hype girl out there and who wouldn't want to play with her? And Juls - she’s super easygoing, the kindest person on our team, but gets the job done. We just complement each other really well out there."
So how successful has the Janiga-Babstock-Iafallo line been? Well, of the three forward lines that the Beauts have skated, they are the only one with all three forwards having scored a power play goal. They are also the only line where all three players are at least 50-50 on face-offs. Janiga is 48-23 on draws, Babstock is exactly at 51-51, and Iafallo sits at 5-2. Combined, this trio also has generated the most blocked shots as a single line with a total of nine.
With five regular season games to go, Janiga talked about the focus of she, Babstock and Iafallo have for the rest of the way.
"Just kind of gelling with the line, every practice out there, making sure that all our passes are connecting. I think we've seen a difference in the last couple games we've had. Passes are connecting in the neutral zone. We're two passes and we're up the zone, and I think that's huge in our team's success."
Though the weather in Buffalo should be hopefully be thawed by the time the Beauts and the Pride drop the puck on Saturday, there have been some very wintry days in Western New York all week long. Like most natives of the area, Janiga knows when it's just too cold to venture out, even for a Buffalonian. Like many who remained hunkered down this week, she did her best to stay warm as well.
Ask how she fights against the Buffalo chill, Janiga responded:
"Sitting in front of a fireplace with about 10 blankets on, and having some coffee."