The first round of the NWHL’s Isobel Cup playoffs have come to an end. The Buffalo Beauts are set to challenge the league’s first seed, the Boston Pride, for the championship title in the historic final round. Most who have followed the league would never have anticipated these two teams would be facing each other for the right to hoist the cup – Boston and the Connecticut Whale had spent the season separating themselves from the pack and were far and away the top two teams, record-wise.
Here we are, though, with fresh memories of the game three upset. The Beauts defeated the Whale in consecutive nights after losing all six games in the regular season and the game one matchup in the playoffs – seven straight losses, all told. It took stellar individual performances and a lot of heart for Buffalo to overcome what seemed like insurmountable odds. There were some key factors in the Beauts’ opening round victory over the Whale.
1. Power Play Success
Buffalo notoriously struggled on the power play in the 2015-16 season. Despite having the most opportunities in the league – nearly four chances per game (3.83) – the Beauts managed only 15 goals; fewer than one per game (0.833). Their efficiency was not the worst in the league, at 0.156 (15/96,) but scoring on only one in every six power play opportunities is sub-standard, to say the least.
Connecticut can generally be counted on to give their opponent a lot of power play time, but in the three game series, the team was generally able to keep their cool. In Buffalo’s two victories in the series, the team went two for eight on the power play – a much improved 0.250 conversion rate.
2. Positive Penalty Kill
Again, one of the teams’ weaknesses in the regular season was their penalty kill. The team was shorthanded fewer times than any of their counterparts through the 18 game season (74), however, the Beauts allowed 16 goals – a kill percentage of only 0.784.
It’s difficult to win games when the team allows a goal every four times a team has the man advantage. In the playoffs, though, the team allowed only one goal while they were shorthanded, uncharacteristically taking 16 penalties over the three games. In their two victories, the team was even in goal differential while on the penalty kill, shutting down the Whale power play completely and even scoring a shorthanded goal in the process.
Throughout the season, goaltending has been an issue for the Beauts. It wasn’t until mid-season that Brianne McLaughlin really felt like herself. Since that time, though, McLaughlin has been one of the most important players on the team. Her playoff performance stands out as some of her best games of the season – through two games, she held a 0.948 save percentage. After game three, that dropped to a very respectable 0.929. McLaughlin was the only goaltender to start three games, and finished her third game in three nights looking as sharp as she had in the previous two.
4. Depth Scoring
Through their first 13 games of the regular season, the Beauts’ top-six forwards accounted for 85% of their goal scoring. The team was certainly trending upward, but this statistic stands out as indicative of the Beauts’ play early in the season.
The team relied too heavily on their top lines, which was especially an issue on a roster that had trouble maintaining attendance throughout the season. Buffalo’s season turned around completely, though, when they started to get depth scoring – especially when it came from the blue line.
Defenseman Megan Bozek had four consecutive multi-point games to finish the season. Bozek also helped first line center Shelby Bram add to her goal statistics, as Bram scored two late-season goals off of tipped Bozek shots. In the first 13 games, nine full-time rostered players had not scored a goal. By the end of the season, that number was down to four. This depth scoring continued through the playoffs – Bozek finished the series with three goals, and Emily Pfalzer, Lindsay Grigg, and Kelly McDonald all notched assists in the series.
5. Fresh Legs
Whether or not this is a positive, it certainly helped the team in the series. As initially reported by Today’s Slapshot, the Beauts would be missing leading scorer Kelley Steadman and team leader Meghan Duggan for at least one game each. It turned out that Duggan was unavailable for the first two games of the series, joining the team for their series clinching victory.
While these two stars were certainly missed in game one, getting Steadman back in the lineup for game two injected a dynamic to their offense that was lacking in the opening tilt. Duggan’s timely return was a boost for the team in more ways than one – having a leader like Duggan, who is the captain of Team USA, instantly changes the mentality of a team, but it is also true that Duggan had the freshest legs of any player on the ice in the decisive game three.
With full rosters of players who had played through two grueling, physical games, gaining a phenomenal player like Duggan helped to refresh the team and put them in a good spot to clinch a berth into the championship.
As the Beauts continue to trend upward in overall development, they will face a Boston team that has also had a fantastic second-half of the season. These key improvements in their game will be a big factor against the Pride, and they’ll have to continue to develop these areas if they are going to take home the Isobel Cup.