Across all of SBNation this week, sites will be looking at the best teams to never win a championships.
The Boston Pride swept the Buffalo Beauts in the 2016 Isobel Cup Final 2-0 to become the NWHL’s first champions. And, truth be told, their victory wasn’t much of a surprise.
The Pride’s first roster featured Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Gigi Marvin, Kacey Bellamy, Jillian Dempsey, Blake Bolden, Zoe Hickel, and Amanda Pelkey. The stacked Pride, led by head coach Bobby Jay, were also regular season champions with a record of 14-3-1. On paper, there wasn’t much room for improvement — but that didn’t stop the Pride from drastically improving going into the 2016-17 season.
The Pride signed Team USA captain Meghan Duggan, who was the Beauts’ captain in 2015-16, and made a trade with the Riveters to acquire the rights to Alex Carpenter. Boston also signed rookie Lexi Bender — the 11th pick of the 2015 Draft — to bolster the blue line and brought back a healthy Lauren Slebodnick to back up Brittany Ott.
Duggan had 16 points in 13 games with the Beauts the previous season and had won a Clarkson Cup with Knight and Marvin in 2013 with the Boston Blades. She also had ample experience with all the national team talent on the Pride. In other words — she had pre-existing chemistry with the Pride’s best players and the same was true of Carpenter.
The Pride were absolutely stacked.
Even though Hilary Knight missed seven games of the regular season, the Pride went 16-0-0 before the Metropolitan Riveters spoiled their undefeated season on Mar. 12, 2017. That 3-2 loss proved that the Pride were, in fact, mortal. However, it did little to derail their momentum or tarnish their reputation as Isobel Cup favorites.
The Pride finished the regular season with three players who scored 20 or more points — Decker, Duggan, and Carpenter — and an offense that average over 4.0 goals per-game. Boston was a well-tuned scoring machine even without Knight in the lineup and even after Hickel was dealt to the Connecticut Whale.
Interestingly enough, Boston’s power play was below-average but the team’s even strength offense was without peer. The Pride scored 54 goals at evens in 17 game — an average of 3.18 ES G/GP; the Whale finished second in the league with an average of 2.5 ES G/GP.
Isobel Cup Semifinal
Any concerns that Pride fans might have had after the team lost its regular season finale were quickly erased in the Isobel Cup Semifinal. Boston simply overwhelmed the Whale. The Pride scored two goals in the first and another three in the second while ceding just a single goal to the Whale. At the end of the regulation, Boston had secured a statement 8-2 victory.
Carpenter had a five-point night and Decker and Knight each had four-point games in the semifinal. The Pride, led by three of the brightest stars on Team USA, looked more or less invincible.
In the other semifinal, the Beauts, who finished the season with a 6-10-1 record, managed to upset the rising Riveters. If anything, their unlikely victory tilted the odds even more in the Pride’s favor. In five games against Boston in the regular season, the Beauts scored just four goals. In their final meeting of the regular season, which took place just two weeks before the Isobel Cup Final, the Pride crushed Buffalo 7-1.
Isobel Cup Final
If you’re reading this piece, you likely know the outcome of the 2017 Isobel Cup Final. Against all odds, the Beauts defeated the Pride by a score of 3-2 thanks to a legendary performance by Brianne McLaughlin.
To better understand the greatest upset in NWHL history, I re-watched and tracked the game, which can be found on the league’s YouTube channel. Unsurprisingly, the numbers only make the Beauts’ victory look even more remarkable.
- BOS 5v5 CF%: 78.87
- BOS ES CF%: 80.64
- Brittany Ott: .750 Sv% (9 saves)
- Brianne McLaughlin: .968 Sv% (60 saves)/
Despite dominating in the shot share at 5v5 (65.30%) in the first period, the Pride found themselves trailing 2-0 after the first 20 minutes of play. Boston was credited with 38 shots and attempted 75 shots at 5v5 alone in the first 40 minutes without scoring a goal.
The Beauts, on the other hand, scored a goal on their first shot attempt of the game — a blast from inside the blue line by Defender of the Year Megan Bozek. Emily Janiga scored the second goal of the game for the Beauts 13:01 into the first when she gathered up her own rebound and floated it over Ott’s shoulder.
The even strength offense that made the Pride the NWHL’s most productive team through their first 18 games of the year simply failed them in the final. Boston failed to execute on numerous scoring chances as a result of mishandling pucks, McLaughlin coming up with timely saves, and the Beauts’ defensive refusing to break regardless of how much they bent under the pressure of the Pride’s offensive onslaught.
It should be noted that Ott had a rough game. She should have stopped Bozek’s slap shot that gave the visiting team a 1-0 lead. She also should have stopped what proved to be the game-winning goal, which was scored by Corinne Buie. Just before the midway-point of the second period, Buie won a foot race against Alyssa Gagliardi and then tucked the puck past Ott. She had given her team a 3-0 lead in a period where the Beauts were out-shot by a margin of 23-3.
At this point it became abundantly clear that the hockey gods were smiling on Buffalo.
Buie’s goal stood out not only because it was the game-winner, but also because she helped the Pride lift the Isobel Cup in 2016. Duggan, who scored 13 goals for the Pride in the regular season, drew three penalties in the Isobel Cup Final against the team she had captained last year and peppered the net with shots. But, like the rest of her teammates, she was denied over and over again by McLaughlin. And when the Pride beat McLaughlin, their shots sailed wide or they hit iron.
The Pride didn’t score until Alex Carpenter buried a rebound chance on the power play with 4:27 left in regulation. McLaughlin’s shutout was spoiled, but the Pride were still down two goals and the clock was against them.
Jay pulled Slebodnick and, with the extra skater on the ice, the Pride attempted nine consecutive shots before Knight scored with just 4.2 seconds left. Boston’s goal celebration was a modest one. The Beauts’ bench was already stirring and screaming. The puck dropped again at center ice and was slapped ahead to Emily Matheson — then Pfalzer — who definitively smacked the puck off the boards and into Boston’s zone as the final horn sounded.
Players in blue and black jerseys swarmed their goaltender. The Pride were defeated and the Beauts were Isobel Cup Champions.
So, what do we call the 2017 Isobel Cup Final? A story of triumph for a massive underdog? A statistical anomaly? A goaltender’s finest performance in what proved to be her final game? All of the above?
The NWHL’s second final might just be the greatest game in league history. It’s the sort of game that reminds you that anything can happen — especially in a one-game playoff. It’s the sort of game that makes you fall hopelessly in love with the greatest sport the world — unless, of course, you were rooting for the Pride.
Data courtesy of NWHL.zone, EliteProspects.com, and the author’s own tracking.