NWHL 2017-18 Season Preview: Buffalo Beauts
Think the reigning Isobel Cup champs have the stuff to repeat? You could be right. Here’s why
The NWHL’s third season is sure to be a tossup. With the U.S. and Canadian national teams gearing up for the 2018 Winter Olympics, the playing field is a lot more level, so to speak — and thus teams have had to act fast to get together the best possible on-ice product.
The Beauts acted early and with purpose, getting together a group of serious point producers while maintaining its back end. The result is a roster that shows a lot of promise to repeat its success in winning the Isobel Cup last season, with potentially less drama.
A Look Back at Last Season
Last season was a lot like the first one for the Beauts, with one important difference. A lack of consistency, plus issues with chemistry, contributed to their up-and-down regular season; however, just like in their inaugural year, they pulled it together for the playoffs, downing the then-New York Riveters in the semis to match up once more with Boston in the Final. There, they held on for a 3-2 victory, avenging last year’s result against the same team.
Corinne Buie, Shiann Darkangelo and Emily Janiga stepped up in a big way for Buffalo, while Kelley Steadman was in and out of the lineup due to scheduling conflicts as well as a suspension. On the blue line, Sarah Casorso was a standout, and Megan Bozek had her best season statistically. Brianne McLaughlin and Amanda Leveille each had their troubles in net before finally hitting their stride, and McLaughlin was yet again a big part of the team’s success when the postseason arrived.
There’s a new feel as well as a new look to these Beauts -- a sort of polish to the “hardworking” edge they’ve cultivated over the past two seasons. After shaking off some of the jitters in their first preseason game, they definitely looked (and in their own words, felt) like a cohesive unit. Having a lot of fellow teammates playing together again helps, so it’ll probably come down to practice time and making sure they can maintain that chemistry throughout the season.
This is an offensively-edged team this time around, with scorers everywhere (Elia, Vint, Jones, Buie, Scamurra, even Casorso and Edney), so I can definitely see them taking the league by storm in a way we haven’t seen yet. If they were able to win the Cup last year with less firepower, I’m excited to see them perhaps defend it this year as one of the league’s top two teams in a season where we’ll see a lot tighter competition.
This season boasts an almost completely new-look roster for the Beauts, with retirement and Olympic centralization taking away a lot of the big names from last year. Steadman and McLaughlin have both hung up the skates, and, briefly, Harrison Browne (who is now playing for the Riveters). Skeats joined the CWHL and Bozek is on the U.S. National Team this year, along with Emily Pfalzer. Meanwhile, Darkangelo has also set her sights on the CWHL and one of its two new Chinese teams, Kunlun Red Star.
The Beauts leaned heavily on local and regional talent as a response, signing a pair of forwards and a goalie (Taylor Accursi, Katherine Donohue, and Julia DiTondo) from Mercyhurst, re-signing Buie and Jacquie Greco, and adding a full forward line from Adrian College. They also held onto the majority of their blueliners from last season, plus Hayley Scamurra and Kourtney Kunichika, who is now the longest-tenured Beaut on the roster. Lastly, they snagged a talented trio from the CWHL’s Markham (formerly Brampton) Thunder in blueliner Sarah Edney and forwards Jess Jones and Rebecca Vint.
Players to Watch
Elia was all over the ice during preseason play, and it showed on the scoresheet -- she scored three points (one goal, two assists) in two games. She put her size to good use and was a physical as well as a skillful presence, putting every inch of her 5’10” to use. She’s also one of the local players on the roster, hailing from Lewiston, so I imagine we’ll see quite a few Elia #16 signs and jerseys in the games to come.
Jones was one of the steals from the CWHL and was one of the most dynamic players on Brampton’s offense, tallying 37 points and sharing the scoring title with Marie-Philip Poulin (of all people!) last season. I expect her to continue with that heading into her first NWHL season, especially alongside fellow former Thunder teammates Vint and Edney.
Leveille struggled early in her rookie season while splitting time with McLaughlin, but seemed to get more comfortable as the season progressed. She also had a number of big saves in the one preseason game she played, proving she’s back in a big way. A technical goalie who’s cool under pressure, I think she can definitely step up to fill the top role if she can find consistency early on with her defense.
Three Must-Watch Games
Nov. 4 v Riveters at Bill Gray’s Regional Iceplex in Rochester
New look teams, new designation for the Riveters, brand-new location (Rochester!) for an NWHL game. It’ll be interesting to see how both fans and a second out-of-market location take to pro women’s hockey. Road trip, anyone?
Nov. 11 v Pride
It’s the first showdown between the defending Isobel Cup champions and their runners-up. These teams may look fairly different from the previous season, but I’m sure there will still be no love lost.
Jan. 14 v Whale at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Pittsburgh
This is the Beauts’ other out-of-market game this season, as the NWHL returns to Pittsburgh for a second season. I’m sensing a testing of the waters for a future expansion team in Pitt… but we won’t talk about that. Yet.
At least three Beauts in the top-ten in scoring this year. At least one shutout for Leveille. Beauts go deep into the postseason to defend their title.