Buffalo Believes Classic was an instant classic

NWHL’s first outdoor regular season game was a thriller

It was as if Mother Nature knew something big was about to happen Saturday night.

After a week of above-average temperatures for the Western New York area, the air finally chilled down to a suitable 39 degrees as Buffalo RiverWorks played host to the first-ever outdoor game in the history of the National Women’s Hockey League, the Labatt Blue Buffalo Believes Classic.

There, the Buffalo Beauts took on the Metropolitan Riveters for the first time this season, setting the stage for not just an entertaining matchup, but for yet another of the five-year-old league’s milestones.

”It’s incredible to see the outreach,” Beauts goaltender Mariah Fujimagari commented post-game. “I think it was amazing to come to downtown Buffalo. It gives people something to get excited about, especially at the halfway point of the season… we were so excited to have a venue like this and be a part of it.”

Though the Riveters eventually pulled out the 7-4 win in a whirlwind of a finish, both teams had plenty to enjoy when it came to the atmosphere.

”It’s just fun,” Riveters forward and captain Madison Packer said of the opportunity to get outside. “It reminds you a lot of when you’re a kid, and why you started playing in the first place… most of us grew up, you know, late nights, long hours out on cold rinks like that, so it was just a real fun, back-to-your-roots game to play.”

Packer and Taylor Accursi came out the stars of each of their respective teams, Packer with two goals and an assist and Accursi with all of the Beauts’ four goals, putting them as close as a 4-4 tie before Metro pulled away with it. Rebecca Morse, Brooke Avery, Brooke Baker, Tatiana Shatalova, and Kailey Hutchison also scored for Metro, proving its offense can come from all areas.

Preparing for any game involves a lot of focus and rest, but the circumstances surrounding an outdoor game are more than a little bit different. Obviously, many of the differences lie in anticipating and dressing for the elements, as well as getting used to an arena unfamiliar to either team thus far.

”It’s mostly being prepared for, you know, slower ice surfaces, divots in the ice, being able to make sure you’re moving the puck for shorter passes,” Fujimagari said. “We were also talking about the boards being different, and the puck being a little warmer, it was more bouncy… those are just the kind of variables you try to prepare for.”

Still, while the Beauts struggled slightly more than the Riveters to adapt, they managed to find their stride in the third period -- or, as Accursi put it, “We got our heads out of our butts” --  and made it a close one on that flurry of goals from Accursi and the top line. Accursi’s linemates, Iveta Klimasova and Corinne Buie, had two and three assists respectively, in a great showing for all three players.

”I think everybody got that extra little step, and that’s what we’d been missing all game,” Accursi said, adding that the Beauts have to find a way to fill all three periods with that energy.

A surprise face in the lineup for the Riveters was veteran Ashley Johnston, who stepped in to fill the lines in place of Kiira Dosdall (who was unable to make the trip due to scheduling conflicts). Johnston was frank about whether she was able to prepare for the weekend -- “Not really,” she said with a chuckle -- but was clearly excited at the chance to participate.

”It was awesome,” she said. “It’s always an honor to put on the jersey, see all the girls, and play in this league, so it’s definitely not a small thing. It’s something I take with a lot of pride. So I was really excited to be back.”

According to Johnston, she and general manager Kate Whitman Annis had discussed the possibility of Johnston making the lineup at some point, but the timing wasn’t right until serendipitously, this weekend happened to be free for the veteran blueliner. Donning number 25 instead of her customary 10 (currently worn by forward Kendall Cornine), she joined the lineup for the full weekend in Buffalo, and while she didn’t score any points, she did provide an important presence for this fresh-faced Riveters team.

”We’re halfway through the season, but we still have a lot of people who this is new for,” Packer said. “Especially in a game like that, where things get tight… you know, I can yell on the bench and know I got a vet down at the other end who can kinda balance the D, and from a hockey standpoint, she was phenomenal [tonight].”

In net for the Beauts, Fujimagari made 28 saves on 34 shots, with the last Rivs goal having been scored on an empty net. Her counterpart on the Riveters, Sam Walther, made 22 saves.

Meanwhile, the crowd had plenty to cheer about all game, whether it was watching both goalies make saves, seeing a bit of the chippiness that has become a hallmark of Rivs/Beauts games, or screaming themselves hoarse at either Accursi or the refs (you can guess which emotion goes with which entity). RiverWorks was packed with over 1,200 fans, most in Beauts blue with a smattering of red, white, and blue in the mix, and over the course of three periods, the intensity of the crowd never really let up.

The biggest hope of all is that this night begins a tradition in the Buffalo area, much like the Winter Classic did in the men’s equivalent. Whether at RiverWorks or elsewhere, the excitement of an outdoor game can never truly be beaten.