Nine games in, Buffalo Beauts are facing a crisis of identity

With that, however, comes that all-too-familiar question: Who <em>are</em> the Beauts?

When it comes to the first nine games of the Beauts’ Year Seven, it’s hard to put into words how I feel looking back at them. There’s a lot to love about this squad — young, charismatic, ready to fight till the end for each other and for their fans. They have plenty of pieces in place that, once they fit, can be literal game-changers. For all intents and purposes, this is an upstart team still working on finding its footing.

With that, however, comes that all-too-familiar question: Who are the Beauts?

Roster, schedule, and home rink aside, this team has been struggling to forge an identity outside of “never say die” for a while. They have fast players, but they’re not really being pinpointed for their speed. They have plenty of scorers on paper, but in reality, they’re only managing two goals per game, with two of their major producers (co-captains Taylor Accursi and Marie-Jo Pelletier) largely quiet through the first half of the season. Even strength zone time has been difficult to come by in most of their games, and they always seem to be looking for the perfect play, rather than just getting the puck on net. There’s also been a lot of lineup mixing and matching, some of which has paid off, some not — and some players who deserve a closer look being scratched when at this point, there’s not much more to lose by putting them in.

On defense, there’s a good mix of two-way players and some serious weapons on this roster, but they are struggling on breakouts and zone entries and are allowing nearly 30 shots against per game on average, making a tall order for goalie tandem Lovisa Berndtsson and Carly Jackson to fulfill. The offensive-minded defenders are doing well, with Dominique Kremer and Emilie Harley among some of the leading goal-scorers, but there’s still something missing in their game down low that becomes more obvious the higher the deficit becomes.

Moreover, their special teams are in need of some serious TLC. They’ve converted just six percent of their power play chances, good for second-last in the league (behind Boston), and they’ve allowed more shorthanded goals than they’ve scored on the skater advantage. When they’re not trying to run the same set play, they don’t throw nearly as much rubber or use up as much ice as they should, leading to plenty of missed opportunities, and the shorthanded odd-man rushes opposing teams have capitalized or nearly capitalized on are staggering. Losing Lisa Chesson prior to the start of the season meant they lost a bona fide power-play quarterback, capable of dictating the play and really pushing it to the other end of the ice. Pelletier is also a great power-play specialist, but can’t do everything alone. Meanwhile, the penalty kill is dead in the water at just 74 percent, good for last in the PHF, with plenty of chances allowed right at the doorstep or slipping past the back door.

The midseason signing of Claudia Kepler added some spark, but perhaps what’s needed even more is someone who can fill that cornerstone on the defense and help MJ out. As good as Elena Orlando is, her lack of time practicing with the team and lack of a stable partner on D until very recently (when paired with Samantha Fieseler against Minnesota) are not spelling success. That said, I definitely hope those two stick around on the same pairing, because there was a definite improvement in both of their games against the Whitecaps.

You’ll notice I haven’t spoken much about the goaltending, and that’s because the two goalies who’ve played so far have been the silver lining amongst these clouds. Both Jackson and Berdntsson are much, much better than their records suggest, and both have come up big when needed. One can argue that you need a goalie who’s able to steal a game for her team, but it’s hard to do that when that team isn’t producing in front of you or giving you the support you need. It’s a team sport, after all.

What’s perhaps the most frustrating thing watching as a fan and as a reporter right now is that the Beauts have shown multiple times that they are capable of skating with the best teams in this league. Opening Night’s tilt against Toronto and their weekend in New Jersey against the Riveters proved their resilience. Going up 3-2 against the Six a couple of weeks ago showed they can put teams on the ropes. But it’s the consistency that’s lacking, consistency that they’ll need in order to push toward another chance at Izzy.

There’s also a need for discipline that has plagued the Beauts for a couple of seasons now. While some of it can definitely be chalked up to the officiating being less than perfect for sure, there’s still a need for this team to rein it in when possible and really focus on killing the two minutes, not arguing with refs liable to give you a misconduct just because they feel like it. It’s happened a couple of times at this point where a player loses their cool, and not always a rookie either (think back to Cass MacPherson against the Riveters back on Nov. 20). Rhea Coad herself has also given the officials an earful on more than one occasion, which I can’t blame her for fully, but it does set a precedent that harms the Beauts in the long run.

I fully agree with Coad when she says the officials all need to get on the same page, but so does her team when it comes to keeping its wits about them. The fact remains that nearly every team in the league has had to deal with the same thing, and most of them have at the very least been able to weather the storm. So, too, does her squad. There’s a definite flagging in energy overall, one that all the late flurries in the world aren’t able to cancel out, and it’s concerning.

Ultimately, what the Beauts need to figure out is, what kind of team are they, really? And what kind of team do they want to be — the kind of team that lets the frustration get to them and ends up blown out 8-3? Or the kind of team that can threaten a powerhouse team like the Six and make a game for any opponent that much harder to win?

It feels like the true answer at this point is going to be somewhere in the middle. The Beauts will need a giant push to get out of the PHF basement, and they’ll have to do it on the road for most of February. It’s possible they can make this a solid run; after all, Beauts teams in the past have been able to get all the way to the Isobel Cup Final with a less-than-stellar record. It’s all about getting hot at the right time. Let’s hope there’s something brewing now, or else this dry spell might mean an early exit.