The first NWHL playoff game of the 2019-2020 season kicks off tonight when the 4 seed Buffalo Beauts host the 5 seed Connecticut Whale.
Where to Watch
Whale-Beauts will take place Friday, March 6 at 8:30 pm EST. The winner will advance to play the Boston Pride on Sunday, March 8 at 2:30 pm EST.
Though Connecticut came excruciatingly close to pulling out a victory on several occasions against the Buffalo Beauts this season, they came up empty in all five contests. Buffalo swept the season series with four regulation wins and one overtime triumph. Four of the five encounters were decided by two goals or fewer.
The closest Connecticut came to a victory over Buffalo this season was on October 19, where the Whale took a 3-0 lead into the first intermission yet fell in overtime by a final score of 5-4. That is the only game in the five-game series in which the Whale held a lead.
Connecticut scored 2.40 goals-per-game against the Beauts- the highest average against any opponent this season. Buffalo, meanwhile, can boast the same feat: 4.6 goals-for-per-game against the Whale, their best mark against any team in the league.
Players to Watch
Marie-Jo Pelletier, BUF: Pelletier has been an absolute killer of the Conneticut Whale this season. She has registered points in all five matchups this season, racking up two goals and nine assists. No other Beauts player has registered more points against the Pod this season than Pelletier.
Considering that accounts for more than half of MJP’s point total this season, it’s safe to say that she’ll be licking her chops heading into this playoff tilt.
Taylor Accursi, BUF: Accursi is the driver of the Beauts’ offense. Leading the way with 16 goals and 25 points, she is the primary mark for Colton Orr’s defensive battalion. Accursi was especially successful against the Whale, notching four goals and two assists including points in all five games.
The one thing Accursi has not done this season, however, is score on Brooke Wolejko. Speaking of...
Lea-Kristine Demers, BUF: Goaltending has been an issue all season long for the Beauts. It’s bad enough that their defensive zone coverage has been spotty at best, so their goaltenders are hardly in a position to succeed. But even with that in mind, Buffalo has failed to establish stability in the crease, especially since the injury to Mariah Fujimagari.
Lea-Kristine Demers was signed after completing her senior season at Merrimack College, where she posted a .906 save percentage and 3.09 goals-against average. She was handed the reins in the final weekend of the regular season for Buffalo, splitting a set with the Riveters and stopping 72 of 77 shots in the process.
How Demers will handle playoffs in a professional setting remains to be seen. But this has Hayley Scamurra-esque implications for Buffalo, as one can’t help but remember when Scamurra joined the Beauts at the 11th hour in 2016-17 and scored four points in two playoff games helping Buffalo win their first Isobel Cup.
Brooke Wolejko, CTW: Wolejko has not made an appearance against the Buffalo Beauts this season. The season series was complete by November 30, by which point Wolejko had not yet seized control of the starting job for Connecticut.
In that case, Buffalo has not seen Connecticut’s most valuable player. Wolejko has a .918 save percentage since being named the Whale’s starter December 8. She has both wins in net for Connecticut this season. In those two wins, she stopped 71 of 75 shots- a .947 save percentage.
It’s hard to overstate just how impactful Wolejko has been for the Whale.
Emma Vlasic, CTW: There’s no two ways about it, the Whale struggle to score goals. They are built as a defensive team and lack punch up front. The few weapons they have on the forward lines, they will need them to be opportunistic.
Enter Emma Vlasic.
Vlasic has nine goals on the season, a mark that leads the team. She rifled 11 shots on goal over the final two regular season games of the season in Minnesota. Though she enters the postseason on a five-game goalless drought, she remains one of the top offensive weapons the team has to offer.
Kayla Meneghin, CTW: Meneghin is the X-factor for the Whale. Earlier this season, she was one of the best puck carriers on the team, capable of generating chances on the rush. She missed over a month of action to fulfill her duties as assistant coach of St. Anselm College’s women’s hockey team, returning to play this past weekend.
Meneghin registered three shots on goal or more in six of her last seven games prior to her leave of absence. In her return, she mustered just one in a pair of games in Minnesota. She finished the regular season with four goals and four assists in 14 games.
If the Whale can get Meneghin back in her element, it provides another weapon for the offensive attack- one that gives them some much-needed creativity.
The first three rounds of the season series were played before the Connecticut Whale’s head coach took over behind the bench. Neither side has seen the opposing probable starter in goal. A lot has changed since November for both teams. Even though this is a Founding Four matchup between two teams that have been fairly even in playing each other, there’s a good deal of mystery and intrigue surrounding these seemingly familiar foes.
Connecticut has not won a playoff game since 2016, when Jaimie Leonoff posted a 35-save shutout of the Beauts. That is their only postseason win in franchise history. Buffalo has been to every Isobel Cup Final in league history, but enters the postseason having dropped 12 of their last 14 games.
If they can get to Demers early, this could be their best chance at winning since that inaugural season. Early pressure and discipline are the keys.
It’s been a long time coming, but a 2-1 Whale win is not out of the question.