It was another heart-breaking loss for the Buffalo Beauts as they fell 7-3 to the New York Riveters on December 27.
In a familiar situation, the Beauts were missing five rostered players when the puck dropped. While the twelve skaters that took the ice played relatively well, they were largely out-muscled, out-possessed, and out-skated. It didn’t help Buffalo that the Riveter’s uber-talented forward, Lyudmila Belyakova, chose to have her coming-out party in front of a nearly sold-out crowd at the HarborCenter.
It didn’t take long for New York to get on the board. Taking full advantage of a team that had only dressed three natural defensemen. When Jessica Fickel misplayed the puck along the boards, Janine Weber picked it up, heading in all alone on Beauts’ goalie Brianne McLaughlin. The netminder bit on Weber’s first move, as she brought the puck to the backhand and popped it over McLaughlin’s pad to give New York the lead.
The score would not remain 1-0 for long, as Kelley Steadman made good on her return to action, scoring the Beauts’ first power play goal in nearly five periods. In an interview during the first intermission, Steadman described the play.
“Our D walked off the wall, and just kinda hit me on the half-wall. I just came down the slot, and we got a good screen in front, and it went in!”
Steadman’s goal brought a blizzard of bears to the ice, as fans celebrated the point by tossing their teddy bears. The remainder of the period was a physical back-and-forth battle. Both teams tried very hard to work the puck up the boards, and with a lot of clutching and grabbing, both teams were able to slow up the opposition.
Things remained stalemated until another defensive miscue would lead to a Riveters goal. On a face off outside the Buffalo blueline, AnnMarie Cellino appeared to lose the puck in her skates. Meghan Fardleman collected the loose puck and deposited it behind McLagughlin with just 1:12 remaining in the period. The teams would head to the dressing room 2-1.
New York took the first penalty of the period, and Buffalo headed to the power play. Less than a minute in, Tatian Rafte took a hooking call. The open ice was all Belyakova needed. Gathering the puck from the wall, Belyakova headed to the net. The Russian phenom dangled the puck like a watch on a chain, and with one last move, Belyakova wrinkled the net.
Ludmila Belyakova (@belyakova9) scores the third goal for the @NYRiveters and her first of the season. NYR 3 BUF 1 pic.twitter.com/EWtaHLNJ4x
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) December 27, 2015
Buffalo reacted to the goal by stepping up the physicality. A post-play scrum had Riveters defender Ashley Johnston noticeably upset. In the ensuing play, Johnston twice knocked Kourtney Kunichika to the ice, but no call was made by the officials. When Kunichika lost the puck, Beth Hanrahan hit Belyakova, who scored her second of the game.
Another goal from Fardleman chased McLaughlin for the night. The struggling goalie could hardly be blamed. When asked about the forwards who’d played defense for the game, McLaughlin said, “There was a little more talking than usual with the D because a lot of them had never played D before. There was a lot of [talk] about where to be, and trust that people will be in the right spot.”
The physical play continued to increase, and Beauts’ forward Hayley Williams would go to the box for tripping. Thankfully for Buffalo, Steadman was on the ice to kill the penalty the only way she knows how – by creating offense. Steadman broke into the Riveters’ zone and took a shot on Fujimoto. After making the save, the New York defense started to break out.
Steadman stole the puck back and sent it across the crease to a waiting Kunichika. Fujimoto stopped the first shot, but Kunichika persevered, banking it home off of the far post, and brought the Beauts within three, with just over two minutes remaining in the frame. The score would stand 5-2 as the period ended.
Buffalo had their chances in the third to close the gap. A minute and a half into the final period, the Beauts once again took to the power play, and the Browne-Kunichka-Skeats line went to work, maintaining the zone for the first time in the game and working Fujimoto hard.
They were doing all of the right things – getting traffic in front and getting the puck to the net. But, Fujimoto stood tall. When Skeats got the puck at the mouth of the crease, Fujimoto made three saves to keep the puck out.
The Riveters continued to scramble as the team returned to full strength, and the Beauts finally capitalized, as Skeats lofted a backhand from the bottom of the right circle, fooling Fujimoto and cutting the lead to two. This would be the last Beauts goal of the evening. Weber scored her second of the game and Fardleman completed the hat trick.
“Every game we play, it’s a different roster,” McLaughlin said after the game. “We’re getting used to that.” This statement really tells the tale of Buffalo’s woeful inaugural season. Earlier in the week, it was made clear that Team USA would make no exceptions for NWHL players who were also slated to attend camp, so the absence of Meghan Duggan, Emily Pflazer, and Megan Bozek were perhaps predictable, but not necessarily replaceable.
Duggan and Bozek are two of the bigger players on the Buffalo team, and the Riveters seemed to tower over the diminutive Buffalo squad. In addition, Pfalzer is without a doubt the team workhorse, and chews up a lot of ice time for the Beauts, so the already short bench probably seemed a lot shorter for the team.
Buffalo will return to action in Boston on January 3 to take on the swelling Pride. Coming off of a 2-1 victory over the previously undefeated Connecticut Whale, Boston will also be bolstered by the return of their National Team players.
The standings are beginning to tighten up at the top – a win for Boston and another loss for the Whale would put Boston in first place. It almost goes without saying that Buffalo desperately needs a win.
While it is true that every team makes the playoffs, the team needs to begin building some momentum down the stretch, or they risk being little more than an afterthought heading into the second season. With a full roster, Buffalo is a formidable opponent.