Three ups, three downs: Beauts can’t hold the fort as the Six overtake first place

A post-mortem of two wild games, and not just because of the lake-effect snow.

Ever since the schedule dropped for Season Eight, I think we can all safely say one game was circled and highlighted for Carly Jackson — and she did what needed to be done.

The former Beaut-turned-Six backup netminder had her second start at RiverWorks in downtown Buffalo and made that ice entirely hers, capping a 24-save performance with another win, 2-1, on Saturday. The Six then completed the sweep, withstanding a 3-1 and then a 4-3 deficit to come back and secure it, 6-4, at Northtown Center on the back of a 29-stop performance by Elaine Chuli and multi-point games from both Shiann Darkangelo (1 G, 3 A) and Brittany Howard (2 A).

So what does this mean for the Beauts, who still have just one win on the season and find themselves in the Federation basement?

Up: Forwards starting to click — at least, halfway

There’s still quite a ways to go for this offensive corps to really figure itself out, but there are two lines that are really picking up the pace for the Beauts.

Courtney Maud’s line with Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Claudia Kepler has done some great stuff, with Kepler the beneficiary of two goals this weekend. Buckey has also been hungry for her own and finally got it on a tremendous power-play effort, batting the puck out of midair right on Chuli’s doorstep on Saturday to add a goal to her cluster of assists. Maud’s speed and backchecking, combined with Grant-Mentis’s playmaking and Kepler’s great finish, have really gotten them to a good spot (and it’s so good to see Maud and Kep back on a line together after creating some great energy with Anjelica Diffendal during opening weekend against Montreal).

In addition, Summer-Rae Dobson’s line between the Finnish connection of Jenna Suokko and Emma Nuutinen is really clicking — and little wonder, as it’s been one of the few combinations that have been tampered with. All three are tenacious on the puck and provide excellent work on both sides, with Nuutinen in particular impressing me with her backchecking and defensive positioning especially Saturday. Dobson also has a great touch on the power play (more on that in a moment), which has netted her two goals so far.

Down: Where’s Auttie MacDougall?

Last season’s top-scoring forward for Buffalo has been downright invisible since her game-winning goal on Opening Weekend, and it’s incredibly strange. It really seems right now like MacDougall’s playing time has been cut down tremendously, and she hasn’t really been given prime situations in which to thrive like she had last year (on the PK, for example). Maybe it’s the linemates, maybe it’s just something else, but I’m concerned for the Beauts’ speedster — she’s been a key part of the lineup for going on three seasons, and to sideline her now seems really odd to me.

Up: Power play, power play, score me a goal!

The power play is finally starting to click for the Beauts, with three (!!!) scored Saturday evening (Dobson, Grant-Mentis, and Dominique Kremer). I’ve been super impressed with their cycling and forwards’ willingness to crash the net, which is a nice complement to the defensive points’ ability to throw rockets from the blueline (eg. Toni Matzka’s two goals against Boston last weekend).

Moreover, both Dobson and Grant-Mentis scored with mid-air bats off of rebounds or deflections, something we’ve seen in practices lately and that really seems to be working well. What I’d like to see more of is getting some big bodies (like Diffendal, for example) in front of opposing goalies and making it even harder for them to stop this skater advantage. There’s been some great movement between the defense and offense and some good screens in front at even strength — let’s keep that going on the power play, too.

Down: More concern surrounding Kassidy Sauve

The newest Beauts goalie is struggling to stay healthy after some ups and downs with lower-body injuries. The latest looks to have something to do with the knee, as she was wrapped and on crutches Saturday night while Tera Hofmann signed another emergency PTO and backed up Lovisa Berndtsson.

Indeed, late in Friday night’s game, Kass seemed to get run over hard on a Six transition, leading to a stoppage in play that by all accounts had people thinking Lollo would have to take over. Incredibly, Sauve finished the game with a strong 33-save performance, but it was heartbreaking to see her out of the lineup the following evening especially after having matched Jackson almost save for save at RiverWorks.

Just from the outsider’s standpoint, you have to feel for the young netminder, who has a huge desire to play and play well whether in a game setting or just during a practice drill. With the injuries just seeming to pile up, the hope right now is that a couple of weeks of holiday break will help Sauve rest and reset both in a physical and mental capacity. If not, then Nate Oliver’s going to have to make some big decisions regarding his goaltenders come New Year.

Down: Beauts still haven’t found what they’re looking for identity-wise

It’s become a common refrain for this team — young, somewhat inexperienced, but with seemingly all the pieces in place to have a solid squad. They’ve shown their talent and their resilience with a couple of comebacks already against the top teams in the Fed, but they still can’t keep it together long enough to get points out of them.

We saw it against Boston, and again during the weekend against the Six — they can skate, they can score, they can stick with their opponents. What they can’t do right now is win, and it’s becoming clear that the whole is not equaling the sum of the parts personnel-wise.

Some of it really is going to have to come down to the players themselves, such as keeping their feet moving to avoid costly penalties, or pushing harder to get on the backcheck as a unit instead of relying on the defense and goaltending to do it for them. Communication is hit or miss, and that’s led to some sloppy line changes and some key goals scored against off of a transition they can’t yet figure out how to make from offense to defense.

Some of it, though, comes down to what the overall systems look like — are they going to be able to sustain on shot blocking alone, or does a stronger, more structured zone defense benefit their talented blueline corps? Is the breakout really 100 percent where it needs to be when half the time it’s “throw the puck along the boards and hope to win a foot race”? Can they get more creative, can they utilize the speed we know is there, or is it just going to be an on-the-cusp situation all season long?

Up: Still double-digits left to play heading into 2023

It’s hard to fathom that the Beauts have only played six regular-season games, but they have. That puts them with the fewest GP so far, with Connecticut (7) and Montreal (8) just beating them out. In contrast, the current first-place Toronto Six are in double digits with 10 games played, as are the Minnesota Whitecaps and Metropolitan Riveters (currently battling in the middle of the pack). I don’t think it’s much of a surprise, then, that the Whale and Force are in the lower half of the standings along with Buffalo; it’s bound to happen just by sheer virtue of the number of games played.

That said, this schedule is not getting any easier for the Beauts. Once January comes, they’re going nonstop, first hosting Minnesota, then traveling to Boston before coming back home to face their sworn enemies, the Riveters. There are no breaks until the final weekend in January, as a matter of fact, and February is looking like much of the same. Simply put, they’re going to have to figure things out on the fly if they want to have a shot at the playoffs without going the wild-card route (if in fact the PHF decides to structure its postseason that way again, the way it did when there were only five teams in 2019-20).

The good news is that consistent scheduling means they’re actually going to be able to figure out what actually works and what doesn’t in real-time game play, rather than a nebulous practice setting. If they can buckle down, remain disciplined (as they surprisingly have been for the most part), and really give their other two forward lines a good look, I think they can make a late push.

It’s not like they’ve had any kind of blowout losses at this point either. The biggest margin was their 3-0 shutout loss to Boston back on Dec. 10. As frustrating as it’s been to see leads evaporate and points slip out of hand late, it’s heartening to see a team can still hold its opponents’ feet to the fire like that. What helps a team the most is getting those reps in, and I’m hoping that’ll be the case in the 2023 part of the season for Buffalo.