Before the 2018-19 season began, much was said and written about the free agent signings made by Buffalo Beauts general manager Nik Fattey. There was also a lot of attention on the Minnesota Whitecaps, especially after they dismantled the defending Isobel Cup Champions early in the season. When we were all trying to divine which team would lift the 2019 Isobel Cup, it made a lot of sense to pick the Beauts or the Whitecaps.
Now, at the NWHL’s holiday break, the Beauts are 4-3-0 and have an interim head coach after relieving Ric Seiling and Craig Muni of their duties. Meanwhile, the Whitecaps have lost two straight games after their unsustainably high team shooting percentage came crashing down in a two-game series in Minnesota against the Boston Pride.
The Pride have won three straight games to go into the holiday break with a 6-2-0 record. That record ties them in first with Minnesota. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. And the Pride did just that when they crushed Minnesota with a +9 goal differential in their two-game series in the first weekend of December. Boston made a statement with that big road trip — they proved that they are the current team to beat.
This is not last year’s Pride team — which was held back by an ineffective power play, an unproductive blue line, and inadequate chemistry. This time last year the Pride were 2-4-1. So, what’s different this year?
In 2017-18 the Pride’s offense looked deflated after Haley Skarupa was called up to join the U.S. women’s national team for the Pyeongchang Olympics. This year, Skarupa is more of a cog in the machine than the engine of the offense. She is one of six Pride skaters with three or more goals this season. Last year, in the five games she played before leaving the team, she had two of Boston’s nine goals and was averaging a staggering 6.0 SOG/GP.
This year, Boston has an abundance of scoring forwards, a young, mobile blue line, and exceptional goaltending. The Pride look so much better this season because they are deeper than they were last year. Furthermore, first year head coach Paul Mara embraced some of the preexisting chemistry on the roster while finding a way to feature some of the team’s new faces.
Some of that chemistry has shone through on the power play. Boston has cashed in on 27.3 percent of their power play opportunities. That success rate is undoubtedly impressive in its own right, but it is even more of a talking point because the Pride are the only team in the league with a power play success rate north of 10 percent. Boston isn’t the highest-scoring team in the league just because of their power play. According to Even-Strength.com, the Pride have a +9 goal differential at 5v5 and have the second-best 5v5 SF% in the league.
This season, Boston is getting goals from all three of its scoring lines. And we’re beginning to see the Pride’s defenders get more involved in the offense even though Olympic gold medalist Gigi Marvin has been playing forward. Defender Mallory Souliotis already has three goals on the season and Kaleigh Fratkin had three points in her last three games after being pointless in her first five. And rookies Toni Ann Miano and Lauren Kelly both have a goal and two assists in their first eight games.
All of those goals wouldn’t count for much without the superb play of recent NWHL All-Star snub Katie Burt, who has posted a .943 save percentage in her last 180 minutes of hockey. Burt shares the league-lead in wins and quality starts with Amanda Leveille, the reigning NWHL Goaltender of the Year. She has undoubtedly been one of the league’s best newcomers this season.
The Pride are firing on all cylinders right now, but this season is far from over. The Pride still need to tighten up the defense around their own net and generate more chances early in games. The next big test for Boston takes place on Jan. 5 in Buffalo. If the Pride win in convincing fashion against the same team that bested them 5-2 on Nov. 18, they will become Isobel Cup favorites.