With seven games remaining on the schedule, the Buffalo Beauts 5-4 record has them firmly gripping third place in the NWHL. If someone had predicted this at the outset of the season, tweets of criminal quackery, maniacal laughing gifs, and advice to ‘delete your account’ would have flooded their poor, poor timeline.
Nevertheless, this is where the Beauts sit as the halfway point of the season has passed. To say the team is playing poorly is entirely inaccurate - the goaltending tandem has the lowest combined (and individual) goals against averages in the league. The boast the NWHL’s leading goal scorer, leading assist disher, and leading points accumulator. So whyfor they in third place? Excellent question, dear reader.
Whoa. Harsh. Slightly better than mediocre?
I stand by it. While the team’s top line of Maddie Elia, Hayley Scamurra, and Dani Cameranesi are a veritable juggernaut, scoring 16 goals on the season so far (13 even strength), the Beauts depth forwards have combined for a total of seven, of which Jules Iafallo has three. The defense has five.
Teams, fans, officials, goal horn activator people — everyone in the arena or watching the stream — holds their collective breath with Buffalo’s top line takes to the ice. Stifling, physical forechecks, deft and nearly magical puck handling, and a strange ESP that no one can quite explain, make Elia, Scamurra and Cameranesi inarguably the most dangerous line in hockey.
Sorry, not sorry... pic.twitter.com/o2R6BUSyR0— Buffalo Beauts (@BuffaloBeauts) December 30, 2018
The danger diminishes exponentially when the first line takes a rare and brief break. It’s difficult to rate this squad of forwards any higher than mediocre, because their output is just that. Three of Buffalo’s four losses were by one goal. With the names on this roster, the team needs to be winning one-goal games.
This lack of production was probably a key factor in the decision to make a coaching change. Unfortunately, the new staff has not had much time with the team, and even still, the systems that new head coach Cody McCormick and general manager/interim Nic Fattey have implemented appear to be effective, as the team has two depth forward goals in three games since.
It’s difficult to find a criticism of Buffalo’s defensive core. The team has allowed the fewest goals against (14), among the fewest shots (one game’s shot totals are unaccounted for), and the second-fewest power play goals, despite having the league’s most penalty minutes per game.
The Queen City blueliners have also contributed on offense. They are each gifted and dynamic puck handlers that frequently drive the Beauts’ transition game, and
The squad’s defensive responsibilities are rarely overlooked, as evidenced by the statistics noted above, and four of the six have added goals. Blake Bolden and Savannah Harmon are fourth and fifth on the team in shots (20 and 22, respectively).
The one shortcoming is power play points. Buffalo’s PP units got a boost with two goals in game nine, however, the team had managed only one in eight previous contests. With such gifted offensive defenders, one would think that the group would be cashing in with the advantage on a regular basis.
I mean, c’mon. Shannon Szabados and Nicole Hensley make a tight campaign for best goaltending duo in professional hockey. A combined 1.56 goals against average. A combined .934 save percentage. The Beauts have allowed more than three goals only one time, and more than two goals only one other.
Buffalo’s net is on lockdown. It’s walled up, barbed-wired, steel trapped, and lead plated. Szabados and Hensley are nearly impenetrable. They defy you to try. Even when you think you have a sure thing, they will gleefully steal your joy and feed off your frustration, peering sardonically from behind their caged helmet.
At this point, evaluating the team seems a bit of a fool’s errand. Since the coaching change, there are noticeable improvements in all of the areas of the game that could have been described as a weakness. In addition, this season’s pattern matches very closely the previous campaigns - redesign the roster, take three months to assemble cohesive lines and generate chemistry, right the ship by January, and rev up for another championship game.
Still, the team needs to continue to develop depth scoring and keep the power play hot if they are going to contend for home playoff games through the postseason - especially for that home championship game Fattey (and the city of Buffalo) want so badly.