With only one game left in the NWHL’s regular season, the playoff picture has finally come into focus. Two months ago, things were drastically different.
The Boston Pride had been on a slide and the New York Riveters were gaining ground on their second-place spot. The Connecticut Whale were undefeated and showed no signs of slowing down. The Buffalo Beauts? Woefully in last place. Despite a win and a few close games, the Beauts had more questions than answers.
To say that goaltender Brianne McLaughlin was struggling would be an understatement. The team’s poor play could not be blamed on McLaughlin entirely, but as all leaders should, she took responsibility. After a 1-0 loss to Boston on December 20, McLaughlin met with the media and admitted her role in the Beauts’ rough start.
“It’s tough. I’ve been struggling this year – obviously I’ve not been playing well up until this point. It got to the point where the coaches were, like, ‘Figure it out, or you’re not going to play.’”
The contest seemed to be a turning point for the team. They didn’t play spectacular hockey in every game after that, but there was a discernible difference in the team. McLaughlin followed up her comments about her play with a telling statement that forecasted the change: “All of us were talking. We were communicating. We have to feed off of each other, and we were all on the same page. It was nice.”
It was indeed nice. The Beauts’ inconsistencies are too numerous to list here, but their roster issues have been perhaps the most prevalent. The team signed only five defensemen to begin with–even their practice players were all forwards. Complicating things further, former RIT star Lindsey Grigg missed the first three games of the season (as well as important practice time) when she was stuck at the Canadian border when the league failed to obtain a proper work visa in time for the start of the season.
It was in this close loss to Boston that the Beauts’ defenders began to play as a unit. They were starting to pair up and learn each other’s tendencies. Individual players–leaders, such as team captain Emily Pfalzer and national team defender Megan Bozek–found their confidence and were able to contribute offensively.
The defense became a contributing factor on special teams. The penalty kill turned into a scoring unit, and on the power play the team turned shots from the point into quality scoring chances. Pflazer had developed into a puck-carrying force, changing Buffalo’s transition game entirely.
#NWHL Meanwhile in Buffalo, Megan Bozek (@meganebozek) and her patented #BozBlast put the @BuffaloBeauts up 1-0. pic.twitter.com/gLfqueYCuc
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) February 21, 2016
The slow start to the season was certainly disappointing, but the Beauts began to peak at exactly the right time. Their most recent win against the Riveters was one of their most complete games of the season, and arguably the best the defense has looked all year.
The defense kept the Riveters hemmed in their own zone for most of the game, and their patience paid off dividends. Content to clog the middle, the Riveters kept the Beauts to the outside, refusing to chase. To counter this, Bozek and Grigg began to carry the puck down low from the point. They’d circle the zone, becoming a one-person cycle. This got the Riveters moving and opened up the proper lanes.
Bozek ended the game with a goal and two assists. Pfalzer also had an assist.
It marked Grigg’s best effort of the season. She pinched aggressively, saw the ice well, and perhaps most importantly, shut the Riveters down. Grigg blocked shot after shot and broke up pass after pass. Though she didn’t appear on the score sheet, she seemed to be an important part of every play that she was on the ice for.
As Pfalzer’s defensive partner, Grigg has blossomed into a fantastic shutdown defender, and even showed some offensive upside against the Riveters.
With one game left in the regular season, the Beauts seem more than ready to take on all challengers. They have proven they are a fairly even match for Boston, so Sunday’s game should be interesting–especially with playoff positions already locked down. On March 4, they’ll travel to Connecticut to take on the Whale in the first round of the Isobel Cup playoffs. The two teams are familiar with each other, for sure, but the new confidence exuded by the back end may be something Connecticut is not prepared for.