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2019-20 NWHL Season Recap: Buffalo Beauts

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The Beauts crashed and banged their way to fourth place in the regular season standings

Thanks primarily to a solid start, the Beauts finished the season with a record of 8-15-1, for a total of 17 points — good for fourth in the standings and six points behind the third-place Riveters.

From December until the end of the regular season on March 1, 2020, the Beauts won just two of their 14 games. In that same window, the Beauts’ defense and goaltending collapsed, allowing at least four goals in 13 of those games and six or more goals in seven of those games.

Buffalo lost the Play-In Game against the underdog Connecticut Whale on Mar. 6, 2020, snapping a four-year streak in which the franchise appeared in the Isobel Cup Final.

A New Herd

The Beauts returned to NWHL ownership in 2019-20 after being the first privately-owned team in the league in 2018-19. The Pegulas were out of the picture and CWHL founder and pioneer Mandy Cronin stepped behind the wheel as the team’s general manager and goaltending coach. Cronin began the season with just three players who had NWHL experience, but managed to build a roster by recruiting talent from the north of the border. The Beauts had 12 Canadian players appear in games this year; the rest of the league’s teams had 10 combined.

Pete Perram, a player’s coach who brought experience leading the Swiss national team to the table, replaced Cody McCormick behind the bench. Perram’s coaching staff was rounded out by Cronin, Rhea Coad, and Matt Bak.

In addition to that major change behind the scenes, the Queen City’s team also moved from the HarborCenter to the Northtown Center. The new rink offered around 400 fewer seats than the Buffalo Sabres’ practice rink.

Team MVP

Rookie defender Marie-Jo Pelletier emerged as one of the Beauts’ most consistent players in the first few weeks of the season. By the All-Star break, it became clear that she was also the team’s most valuable player. On a team that struggled to keep pucks out of its net and keep players out of the box, the Notorious MJP stood out for her defensive acumen and discipline.

“Mighty Mouse” played in all 24 games this season and set an NWHL record by finishing the season with zero penalty minutes. She also drew four penalties of her own and was the engine of the Beauts’ power play as its quarterback. Pelletier finished her first season of NWHL hockey with a league-leading 12 points on the power play — 10 of which were primary — in addition to scoring three goals and picking up six assists at even strength.

It’s also worth noting that Pelletier and fellow newcomer Lenka Curmova were by far the team’s best defensive pair. When Pelletier and Curmova were off the ice, things tended to go into a tailspin for the Beauts, which not only revealed how valuable they were but also how the team’s lack of defensive depth spoiled their chances of returning to the Isobel Cup Final.

Grades

Offense: B

The Beauts’ offensive was inconsistent, but when it was on, it was wildly entertaining. Including the Play-In Game against the Whale, Taylor Accursi had one goal in her last 11 games after scoring 13 goals in nine combined games in November and December. It also didn’t help when star rookie forward Brooke Stacey left the team, albeit for the best of reasons, at the All-Star break.

Buffalo’s power play finished third in the league with a solid 19.23 percent. Collectively, the Beauts’ skaters piled up 65 goals, just two goals more than the Riveters, to finish third in the league in total offense in the 24-game schedule.

Defense: C-

Perram’s team allowed 36.67 shots against per-60 minutes (SA60), which was the second-highest average in the league. Unfortunately, the Beauts also finished with a 25.09 SF60 — the worst average in the league — and a -43 even strength goal differential, which was the worst in the league.

Rookies Ana Orzechowski and Richelle Skarbowski, who played together as a pair for much of the season, both finished in the bottom-15 in even strength goal differential (-14 and -17, respectively). However, they should not be scapegoats. They are both defensive defenders who regularly started shifts in their own zone and rarely played behind the team’s best forwards.

The Beauts had a habit of being their own worst enemy all year long. Buffalo averaged five penalty kills per game and struggled with turnovers in the neutral zone all year long. Time and time again, Perram’s team struggled to build momentum because of costly penalties and defensive breakdowns that put too much pressure on the team’s goalies.

Goaltending: C

Although it might be a controversial take, I thought Kelsey Neumann was the Beauts’ best goaltender before Léa-Kristine Demers entered the picture at the end of the season. With that being said, let’s take a look at the Beauts’ goalies by the numbers in the regular season.

  • Neumann: .876 Sv%, 2.75 ES GA/GP (even strength goals against per game), 4.40 GAA, three wins in seven starts
  • Fujimagari: .865 Sv%, 3.31 ES GA/GP, 5.10 GAA, three wins in 11 starts
  • Hsu: .861 Sv%, 4.00 ES GA/GP, 5.01 GAA, one win in four starts
  • Demers: .935 Sv%, 2.5 ES GA/GP, 2.51 GAA, one win in two starts

The Beauts’ goaltending was definitely not its greatest strength, but it also wasn’t the team’s greatest weakness. One doesn’t need to look too deeply into the numbers to see that the Beauts desperately needed one of their goalies to emerge as a battler who could keep them in games like Sam Walther did for the Riveters and like Brooke Wolejko did for the Whale.

Overall: C

The 2019-20 Beauts were a team stuck in a chrysalis. The good news is that the future looks bright, particularly if Pelletier, Curmova, Klimasova, Demers, Cass MacPherson, and Mikyla Grant-Mentis remain in the picture and are guided by proven veterans like Accursi and Corinne Buie.