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Kourtney Kunichika talks to the referee at NWHL Buffalo Beauts at Connecticut Whale. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini
NWHL

Expectations are high for Beauts’ Kunichika, reunited second line

The Buffalo Beauts are wasting no time securing the players that were key to their success last season. On May 16, the team announced they’d reunited wings Devon Skeats and Hailey Browne with their center, Kourtney Kunichika.

Kunichika was one of Buffalo’s most consistent players in their inaugural season. Her 17 points (nine goals, eight assists) were good enough for second on the team, and her four power play goals and one shorthanded tally also qualified for second place. She led the team in shooting percentage (18.4 percent) and was one of only four Beauts to play in all 18 regular season games and all five playoff games.

The line of Kunichika, Browne, and Skeats combined for eight power play goals, which accounted for 50 percent of Buffalo’s power play goals in the regular season. Their 23 goals stack up as 41 percent of the total goals scored by the Beauts, and their prowess extended through the playoffs.

Browne is excited that her line is back together for the 2016-17 season. “It’s always great to have someone you play with consistently and I was fortunate enough to play alongside two amazingly talented line mates who brought out the best in me,” she said.

Skeats was quick to agree with Browne. Following her signing, she told Today’s Slapshot, “it’s definitely a sweet bonus that my line mates will be joining me next year –  especially because we work so well together.”

The three forwards were a veritable force to be reckoned with throughout the season. Equal parts chaotic, physical dominance and timely scoring, Kunichika, Browne, and Skeats were a sharp and painful thorn in their opponents’ side. General Manager and head coach Ric Seiling recognizes the importance of having a strong checking line that also scores consistently.

“It is no secret that this was our secret,” he quipped. “This line caused a lot of upset for other teams, and at the same time were responsible for lighting a fire under our team. They have numerous times come up with big goals to lead us and we look for these three to continue to lead by example.”

Certainly, Buffalo’s second-line center has the ability to score, but her purpose went far beyond putting the puck in the net.

Kunichika was also a brilliant utility player for the Beauts, in the sense that she served both the power play and the penalty kill. In her 23 games last season, Kunichika had only six penalty minutes in total. She is an intelligent player who avoids giving the opponent the man advantage.

Kourtney Kunichika jockeys for the puck during NWHL Buffalo Beauts at Connecticut Whale. Dec. 6 2015. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Kourtney Kunichika jockeys for the puck during NWHL Buffalo Beauts at Connecticut Whale. Dec. 6 2015. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

This is important to note because Buffalo gave up more goals to their opponent’s power play units than any other team in the league, despite being the least penalized team overall. The breakdown would often occur because the Beauts’ more dependable players were serving their two-minute sentence.

Seiling and co-coach Shelley Looney were always able to call upon Kunichika to aid the faulty kill, simply because she was so rarely in the penalty box.

Even when serving the penalty kill, Kunichika maintained an offensive mindset. She scored a short-handed goal herself, and also assisted on Browne’s shortie. Her vision and patience are perhaps her most valuable characteristic, and they are the envy of her linemates.

“Our dynamic is totally different,” said Browne in a November interview. “We’re total opposites – I’m ‘GO-GO-GO,’ and she’s like, ‘I’ll slow it down, make a nice play.’ I’ll get her the puck and she slams it home.”

Kunichika is the axis that centers the vortex of Skeats and Browne. The two kinetic forwards swirl an offensive zone, wreaking havoc on opponents in a perpetually dominating forecheck, and Kunichika is the calm of the storm.

At $11,000, she is one of the biggest steals of the offseason so far, and Buffalo is lucky to have locked down one of the league’s most physical and productive second lines for less than $40,000. As Seiling moves forward through unrestricted free agency, he can rest assured that Buffalo’s most reliable player is signed and sealed for the Beauts’ second season.

Expectations are high for Beauts’ Kunichika, reunited second line
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