PHOTO BY MICHAEL HETZEL
For the fourth straight season, the Boston Pride and the Buffalo Beauts will face each other in the NWHL playoffs. When the two teams meet on Saturday at 7:30 PM, it will be inside of Buffalo's friendly HarborCenter confines in front of what is sure to be a raucous crowd. The stage is perfectly set for the two teams, with the victor moving onto the Isobel Cup Final. Tickets are available at NWHL.zone/tickets.
Both teams finished close in this season's standings which led to this opening round matchup. Buffalo finished in second place with 23 points and a record of 11-4-1. Boston was close behind with 22 points and a 11-5-0 record of their own. The Beauts had the distinct edge in their head-to-head matchups during the regular season, winning three of the four contests.
History is important here and these teams have plenty of that. The Beauts' and Pride's head-to-head playoff records are an even two games apiece. In the inaugural 2015-16 NWHL season, the teams faced one another in the first-ever Isobel Cup Final. Boston won both games of the best-of-three series to sweep Buffalo, including a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory in Game One. Eleven current players among both teams played in that first final. Interestingly enough, current Beauts Blake Bolden and Corinne Buie were members of the Cup-winning Pride that first time around but have since become vital cogs in Buffalo's success.
Pride defender Alyssa Gagliardi - an original member of the team - spoke with NWHL correspondent Nate Oliver about the history between the two teams:
"It’s definitely fun to be able to play Buffalo again and have that matchup," Gagliardi shared. "I think there’s definitely a big a rivalry forming based on facing each other in the playoffs in every season so far, and it’s a one-game win or go home, so it’ll be intense and fun. I think the biggest thing for our team is to play loose and know their building is tough to play in but try to use that energy to our advantage. All of our rookies have competed in really meaningful games throughout their careers and we know they will be more than ready. At the end of the day, it’s another hockey game and we know what it takes to play our best, so it’s a matter of bringing our A game mentally and physically and being ready right from the start."
Even though Boston won the first Cup, the Beauts have returned the favor ever since the first season. An underdog team in 2016-17, Buffalo dispelled the heavily favored Pride 3-2 in the championship game to win an Isobel Cup of their own. Then last season - in the first home playoff game in Beauts history - it was retired blueliner Sarah Casorso whose shot from the point in OT eluded Boston goalie Brittany Ott to give Buffalo a 3-2 victory in the semi-final.
The current rosters of these two teams have a lot of firepower. The Pride scored the most goals of the five NWHL teams during the regular season - 60 goals in 16 games to be exact. Much of that was fueled by two of their star players Jillian Dempsey and Gigi Marvin who each scored 10 goals. The Pride had six different players reach double digits in points, with Haley Skarupa leading the way with a solid 18 (6G, 12A) in just 13 games.
PHOTO BY MICHELLE JAY
PHOTO BY MICHAEL HETZEL
That being said, the Beauts have a vast armament of their own. The 57 goals they scored this season are second behind Boston. The Beauts also possess the NWHL's top goal scorer in Maddie Elia who beat opposing goaltenders 12 times in 16 games this season. Buffalo also has Hayley Scamurra - the league's highest point-getter with 20 points (10G, 10A) in her 16 games. Scamurra was the only player in the league this season to record double digits in goals, assists and points. Including Elia and Scamurra, Buffalo had seven players reach at least 10 points this season.
When it comes to goaltending, the Beauts pack the best one-two punch in the league. Their dynamic duo of Olympic gold medalists Shannon Szabados and Nicole Hensley posted the best save percentages and best goals-against averages of any netminders in the league. Both goalies recorded two shutouts apiece as well. Szabados (6-3-1) generated a 1.49 GAA and a .934 save percentage, while Hensley (5-1-0) put forth a 1.50 GAA and .935 save percentage of her own.
Boston's goaltending saw a noteworthy shift this season. Though original Boston netminder - and prior NWHL Best Goaltender award winner - Brittany Ott is still an important performer between the pipes, rookie goaltender Katie Burt has assumed the bulk of the team's netminding duties this season in her first professional season. Burt has performed exceptionally well. The 437 shots that Burt faced this season were the most among any goaltender in the league. More importantly, the 402 saves that she made were the most as well. Such determination saw Burt come away with a 2.26 GAA and a .920 save percentage across her 16 games.
If there is a feel-good story to this particular playoff series, it might be Boston defender Kaleigh Fratkin. An original NWHLer, Fratkin has never won an Isobel Cup. She played the first season of the league as an inaugural member of the Connecticut Whale. After following that up by playing for the Metropolitan (New York) Riveters in 2016-17, she has been a member of the Pride for back-to-back seasons now.
For Boston's players who have won the Isobel Cup before, getting one for Fratkin is a big motivating factor for their entire team.
"It’s a huge motivator to play to win a championship with any group," Gagliardi went on to say, "but especially knowing what it felt like to win in Season One and not getting that opportunity again has everyone hungry to get two big wins to cap off our season. Especially having the win for someone like Fratty - who gives it her all day in and day out and is a veteran and a huge contributor - it would be so awesome to get to raise the Isobel Cup with her. It’s great how competitive the league is and we’ll be extra motivated to leave it all out on the ice come Saturday."
No matter which team wins, this showdown between the Pride and the Beauts is one that cannot be missed!