It's rematch time.
The final matchup of the NWHL season belongs to the same two teams as last year's bout, but with some differences that could bring a new result.
The Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts face off at the Isobel Cup Final, tonight at Tsongas Ice Arena in Boston, for take two of the 2016 inaugural showdown that saw the Pride win it all in a two-game sweep. Hilary Knight helped take game one on an overtime penalty shot last year, and then Brittany Ott led her team to a 3-1 win in the second game to cement Boston’s place as an elite squad in the NWHL.
This year, the Final has been changed to a one-game format, significantly raising the stakes and, potentially, the odds for an upset. Moreover, the impending boycott of the 2017 World Championships by the U.S. National Team no doubt has those players who also compete in the NWHL, many of them for the Pride, wanting to prove their mettle yet again.
The Pride had a relatively easy run to the Cup final, steamrolling the Connecticut Whale 8-2 in the semifinal. Brianna Decker, Knight, and Alex Carpenter all factored heavily into the scoring. Meanwhile, the Beauts had a tighter game against the New York Riveters but managed to pull off a 4-2 win while being outshot by a 3:1 margin. Amanda Leveille stood on her head, stopping 34 of 36 shots in order to propel her team to the final. Emily Janiga also scored twice, and newcomer Hayley Scamurra helped out with her second goal in two games as a Beaut.
In many ways, this Beauts team is similar to the one we saw last year heading into the final. Last year it was Brianne McLaughlin leading Buffalo into the final with her unbelievable performance in the semifinals against the Whale. This year it's Leveille doing the same thing. There's also the same grittiness to this team that there was last year, something former Beaut-turned-Pride Meghan Duggan was able to speak to in a conference call Saturday morning.
“The Beauts have a physical, tough, hardworking battle mentality,” she said. “That’s how they were last year, and that’s how they are this year.”
Still, how far can hard work go against a team like the Boston Pride, who are seemingly unstoppable save for one loss in the final week of the regular season?
There isn’t much difference between the Pride of last year and this year. Knight, Decker, Carpenter, and the rest of the ridiculously deep offense have combined with a solid back end to create a team that has set the standard for the rest of the league. With a clean regular-season sweep of Buffalo, they are the clear favorites to defend their Cup title.
However, the Beauts have proven before that they can step it up at the right time, and there is no better time than now. Rookie goalie Leveille is no stranger to high-pressure situations, having won back-to-back NCAA championships in her junior and senior seasons. The Beauts’ power forward corps is, for the most part, contributing to the scoresheet (and not just on the power play anymore -- three of their four goals Friday night were scored at even strength).
The biggest issue is on the Beauts’ side of the blue line. The Riveters did them a few favors by missing a good number of their own chances; Boston’s not going to do that, and Leveille’s skill and calm under pressure may not be enough to keep them at bay. Buffalo will need to minimize turnovers and get numbers back on defense as quickly as possible to protect the goalie, keeping one-man rushes to a minimum.
Megan Bozek, one of the leaders in that department, is confident of her squad’s ability against the Pride.
“We set ourselves up in a good position here, with a good win against Connecticut last weekend and then a big win against New York this weekend,” she said during the conference call, voicing her excitement for the matchup ahead.
If Buffalo can execute a strong forecheck from the jump, and get Ott moving in her crease, they have a chance to repeat what made them successful in the semis. They will have to put more shots on net and use their physicality wisely, staying away from the penalty box and avoiding giving Boston’s shooters that much more room.
Above all, the Beauts need to show up for a full three periods, something that has been an issue. With a full roster on the ice for multiple practices -- something captain Emily Pfalzer alluded to as being helpful in recent weeks -- chemistry and communication are likely improved, and that helps. It’s the issue of turning that into a sustained effort that the Beauts have struggled with, but if Friday is any indication of how they can beat the odds, there is definitely a chance of seeing Pfalzer and her team hoist the Cup tonight.
Puck drop is at 6 p.m. (ET) at Tsongas Ice Arena. Fans can watch the livestream exclusively on ABCNews.com and the ABC News app.