Last season, Kelley Steadman was the practice player who stole everyone's attention with her dominant play for the Buffalo Beauts.
This year, it's business as usual for the now-rostered forward, who scored twice in the final period Sunday night to lift the Beauts over the Connecticut Whale 5-4 to close out NWHL Opening Weekend at Harborcenter.
Steadman earned first star of the night for her effort, and she voiced her relief over getting the winning shot past Whale goaltender Shenae Lundberg post-game.
"I do that a lot, that same play where I kind of look off the defenseman and shoot, and normally I miss the net, so I was glad it went in for once," she said jokingly during the media scrum.
Indeed, her play couldn't have been more clutch for the Beauts, who started off shaky. The Whale scored just 1:44 into the first on a shot by rookie Haley Skarupa, who dominated the offense for her team. Connecticut continued to pressure, using their speed well in transition and crashing the net hard on Amanda Leveille, but a well-executed penalty kill midway through the period swung things Buffalo's way. Megan Bozek tied the score with 17 seconds left on a shot from in close on Lundberg, setting the Whale back on their heels to end the opening frame.
Unfortunately for Leveille, the early-goal woes continued in the second period, as Kelly Babstock scored 1:45 in. From there, the Whale took over, outshooting Buffalo 17-6 over the course of 20 minutes. Skarupa scored twice more, including once yet again in the final 17 seconds, to get the first hat trick in Whale history and the first of her career.
"It's a pretty cool feeling," Skarupa said of her milestone. "Despite the outcome, my first game... was a great experience."
Emily Janiga broke up the lopsided scoring with a power-play goal (and the first of her NWHL career), but otherwise it was slow going for the Beauts offense heading into the final 20. Connecticut executed not only good offense, but stifling defense for much of the second, trapping Buffalo in their own zone, blocking clears, and keeping a tight presence down low once the Beauts did get into the offensive zone. It was an impressive display from a team whose blueline faltered late last season.
The third period saw both a key line change and a switch in net. Brianne McLaughlin took over for Leveille (23 saves, 4 GA), and her six saves came mostly late in the period to preserve the lead. Co-head coach Craig Muni also switched Steadman from the Kourtney Kunichika line (where she replaced Devon Skeats) to a line with Emily Janiga and Shiann Darkangelo, and that's when things began to heat up. Darkangelo and Steadman combined for Steadman's first of the night just 34 seconds in, and then, after Kunichika tied things up on another power play, Steadman went bardown on Lundberg, unassisted, for the eventual game-winner.
"I started Steady on more of the third line to get her away from some of their stronger players, give her a little more ice time, ease her into the game," Muni said of his decision to switch lines. "When I felt that wasn't working, I wanted to change it up and put her power head-to-head with their power, and the three girls had a magnificent game together."
Steadman and Darkangelo also had significant time together on the penalty kill, which was near-perfect (4-for-5). The Beauts utilized three players down low, with one bigger player (often Darkangelo) up high to break up pass attempts. That strategy paid off beautifully, disrupting the Whale's power play multiple times and even allowing Darkangelo a shorthanded breakaway at one point during the second period.
"I stayed in my lane and was focusing on blocking shots, 'cause they have some good players on their team that will shoot the puck and obviously can put the puck in the net," Darkangelo said. "I think just communicating out there and working together, having each other's backs, we were able to defend it."
Once a Whale player, Darkangelo was on the other side of the Connecticut/Buffalo rivalry for the first time tonight, and she enjoyed the change.
"It's a little weird, because I know all those girls, and some of the new players that were from Quinnipiac," she said. "But when you're on the ice, you're not really friends. You're kind of just battling out, so it's good."
On the opposite side of things, Skarupa kept a positive tone despite the loss.
"The game obviously didn't end the way we wanted, but... overall I think it was a good start to our season," she said. "We're excited to get better."
The Beauts head on the road for the first time this season next Saturday to take on the Boston Pride at 6:30 p.m., while the Whale head to New York to take on the Riveters Sunday.