Nine games into last season, the Buffalo Beauts were in the basement of the NWHL. They had just one win on the year, and had only recently been united with the five players held up in Canada due to visa issues. It took them until the final two weeks of the season to right the ship, leapfrog over New York in the standings, and finally hit their stride heading to the Isobel Cup Finals.
This season, the Beauts already have three wins under their belt through the 2016 portion of the campaign, which is a marked improvement; however, the year has been marked by inconsistencies, many of them due to a revolving-door lineup and an overall lack of cohesion. As a result, they are currently last place in the standings, though admittedly the three teams not in first place — Connecticut, New York and Buffalo — are separated by just one point.
First, let’s focus on the good.
- The special teams have been some of the strongest in the league, with the Beauts’ power play at a league-best 23.5 percent and the penalty kill at 83.3 percent, second only to Boston’s. The penalty kill in particular has been a standout for Buffalo this season, with bigger players like Kelley Steadman and Shiann Darkangelo playing important roles. As far as taking penalties goes, the Beauts are about on par with where they were at last year (4 per game, compared to 4.1 in 2015-16), but the improved strength on the kill has proven that to be less costly this time around.
- Emily Janiga has been a key part of the offense, breaking out in her rookie campaign for five points (3 G, 2 A) thus far. She’s third on the team in faceoffs, winning about 48 percent of them (to Darkangelo’s 52.4 percent and Kourtney Kunichika’s 52.5 percent). Her emergence caps off a strong corps of new players who have made an impact.
- Darkangelo and Corinne Buie have also been solid on offense, with eight and six points, respectively. Buie leads the team with five goals.
- Megan Bozek has been the most prolific blueliner on the ice for Buffalo with six points (3 G, 3 A). It seems like at this point, compared to last season, she has really stepped up her offensive game and been contributing to the forecheck in a big way. I’ve definitely noticed her taking part in more rushes up ice and hanging around the opposing net more often when she's on the ice.
Now, for the not-so-good:
- Kelley Steadman is every bit the player she was last season, with seven points… in just four games. Juggling coaching duties and a full-time position with the team, plus a one-game suspension for her body check on the Riveters’ Kiira Dosdall, mean she’s missed over half the games played so far this year. For a team struggling on offense (2.67 goals per game), that’s a big blow.
- Which brings me to this point: the revolving door within the lineup, whether with injuries or players unable to resolve schedule conflicts, means lines have been shuffled quite a bit. This could be contributing to the overall lack of real chemistry on the roster, as coaches Ric Seiling and Craig Muni have gotten creative to try and fill holes wherever necessary. Apparently not all the players can make it to practices, either, making for a slower gelling process within the locker room.
- Offensively, the Beauts are getting outscored by a 2:1 margin in the first two periods. Slow starts and ugly second periods have been a characteristic of this team all season, as has been a lack of finish on chances they do get — many shots are going high and wide. The Beauts fare better in the third, just breaking even in scoring (10 GF, 10 GA). Still, playing catch-up has meant losing in most, if not all, cases this season.
- The pieces are in place for the Beauts’ defense, with offensive-minded Sarah Casorso, former Golden Gopher Jordyn Burns, veteran Lisa Chesson and Olympian Anne Schleper alongside the original core of Paige Harrington, Emily Pfalzer, and Bozek. Practice players Kayla Parsons and Jacquie Greco have also done well when called upon. However, team-wise there’s been a lot of confusion in the Beauts’ own end, with Buffalo lacking communication and good positioning, getting caught in transitions, and creating multiple turnovers sometimes in the same shift. They’ve also gotten bigger in size, but haven’t figured out how to clear bodies from in front of their goalies. As a result, many goals against have come from in close or with the defense standing still while the opposing skater flies in on Brianne McLaughlin or Amanda Leveille.
- For their part, McLaughlin and Leveille have been doing their best as the starting goaltender tandem, but as the veteran, McLaughlin has definitely proven to be the backbone of the team. Leveille did decently in relief for a couple of games early on in the season, but struggled prior to her first win Nov. 13 against New York. A lot of this could be attributed to the defensive issues mentioned above, but both goalies have had issues with playing the puck, maintaining positioning, and holding onto rebounds. Both also have sub-.900 save percentages right now, with McLaughlin at .892 and Leveille at .848. The blueline has managed to be a bit better in front of McLaughlin, perhaps because she’s just had more experience. Either way, these two are the second-busiest netminders in the league, facing almost 32 shots per game (the Riveters’ goalie duo faces about 35 per game), so they’ll have to tweak some things on both fronts to really help get this team to where they need to be.
- If Megan Bozek has stepped up her offensive game, Emily Pfalzer has definitely been a bit quieter than usual. The Beauts captain has four points so far, and her first goal didn't come until Dec. 3 at New York. Maybe it's just me, but at this point in the season, I don't feel like I’m noticing her as much as I should be. Statistically, she's taking fewer shots per game thus far — 13 over nine games for a total of 1.4 shots per game, compared to the 50 over 17 games last year for a total of almost three shots per game. We do have half a season left, so this might right itself by April.
The final question when it comes to this team is: Are Muni and Seiling getting past the learning curve quickly enough for the Beauts to make a playoff push? That remains up in the air. Obviously, the Beauts have some hurdles to overcome before spring comes. The improvement in special teams is a sign that something has stuck; however, five-on-five play and defensive issues are two things you have to fix in order to succeed long-term, and the Beauts aren't showing that on a regular basis. It really is a question of, "Which Beauts team are we going to get?" whenever they hit the ice, and that doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.
Roster turnover is definitely a factor, and I think it's making its case known for all NWHL teams not named the Boston Pride. That being said, this Beauts team is very talented individually, and if they can figure out what works, I think they can really take the league by storm in 2017. They’ll just have to figure it out in the next month or two, especially when in such close competition with the Whale and Riveters. The Beauts begin tonight with a matchup against Connecticut at Northford Ice Pavilion. Puck drop is at 7 p.m.