As the clock ticks down the hours to the NWHL’s historic first ever Isboel Cup playoff tournament, the teams prepare to do battle with rivals they’ve grown to dislike. Very much. At 7:10 pm ET, the puck will drop, commencing what will be a tensely contested best-of-three series between the Buffalo Beauts and the Connecticut Whale.
The Beauts and the Whale have squared off six times through the season, and Connecticut has won all of them, but for the most part, by the thinnest of margins. Twice in the shootout and once in overtime, a fourth matchup was decided on a fluky goal with less than two minutes left in regulation.
Can the Whale continue the success they had in the regular season? How can Buffalo turn the tides and take down the mighty Whale en route to the Isobel Cup Final?
Don’t Drag Me Down
The Whale are the heavy favorite in the series. On paper, they have an edge over the Beauts in every statistical category. Scoring, goaltending, power play proficiency, penalty kill, possession stats… everything. Aside from the stats, the Whale have a distinct size advantage over the Beauts, and should be able to work this in their favor, grinding down the smaller team.
Truth be told, the Whale often use their size to out-physical the teams they play. Unfortunately for the them, they take their physical game over the edge, and once the march to the penalty box begins, it becomes a veritable parade.
In their first few matchups, the Whale were able to overcome their bad habits by building a big lead enough lead that Buffalo’s power play was not able to catch them, despite their best efforts. As the season progressed and the Beauts became a better team, the Whale’s penchant for penalties became a burden to the team–especially the penalty killers, who would end up fatigued from the extra ice time.
For being a small team, Buffalo also plays a physical game. They manage to keep their physicality within the rules as they are the least penalized team in the NWHL. Often, against Whale, the Beauts would start things up with a big hit that would incite Connecticut into penalty after penalty.
Given the plan’s success, it is logical to assume Buffalo will employ this strategy again in the playoffs. The Whale can easily counteract this strategy by bucking any large shoe company’s slogans and adopting their own policy: “Don’t do it.” It will be tempting to push back, to take an extra whack, to give a little shove with the stick, but for the sake of victory, just don’t do it. If the Whale are able to keep their heads and avoid being dragged into trading penalties, they should easily take this series.
Keep Up the Good Work
Buffalo’s success since the turn of the new year is one of the best stories of the NWHL’s inaugural season. The team has run the gamut of obstacles–players missing from the lineup for various reasons, forwards playing defense, sub-par goaltending–just a tip of the iceberg. They’ve always risen to the occasion though; very few times in the season were they really blown out. They are a team that will not stay down, and in the past two months, they have been on a tremendous upswing.
It took the team 14 games to climb out of the basement and into third place. Blood, sweat and tears were shed on the way up, but all of their hard work has been on dazzling display as of late. Once a weakness, their defensive unit has become one of the more cohesive groups in the NWHL. Players like Emily Pfalzer and Megan Bozek stand out as stars, but it is the play of their partners, Lindsay Grigg and Paige Harrington, that has seen the most improvement. Buffalo’s fifth blueliner, Kelly McDonald, has been a steady contributor at both ends of the ice.
The improvement on the back end has led to an improved power play, which will be key in defeating the Whale. Connecticut is the league’s most penalized team, and they show no signs of slowing down. If the Whale give Bozek an opportunity to unload that cannon of a shot that she has, and the Beauts can convert on the man-advantage, they could be punching their ticket for Newark.
There is nothing more exciting in sports than playoff hockey. The women of the NWHL have been on this 18 week crash-course to history, and it all culminates tonight. To the victor goes the glory. Sticks are taped. Skates are laced. It all comes down to this.