Three ups, three downs: Buffalo Beauts’ opening weekend vs. La Force de Montreal

The Force was strong with Montreal, but the Beauts emerge with four of a possible six points in a chaotic pair of games.

There’s not just a new look, but a new feel to the Beauts as they split their opening weekend of games at Northtown Center, losing 5-4 in a shootout Saturday night and rallying back for a 3-2 win in regulation on Sunday afternoon.

Saturday was a wild, high-scoring affair, as Montreal went up by a goal twice in similar fashion, scoring a pair in the first period within 20 seconds of each other to go up 2-1, then another pair in the third within 10 seconds of each other to presumably seal it 4-3 before Claudia Kepler shoved home a rebound a minute later to force OT. With nothing going in the five-minute extra frame, it took eight rounds of a shootout before Samantha Isbell beat Lovisa Berndtsson to seal it up for La Force’s first-ever regular season win.

Sunday, the Beauts came prepared with renewed energy and a different starting netminder (more on that in a moment), and while Montreal brought plenty of power, it took a lucky break, a gorgeous pass from Anjelica Diffendal and a breakaway goal from Autumn MacDougall for Buffalo to get their own first win of the campaign, this time in regulation 3-2.

Up: Hoff not hassled in emergency capacity

After Kassidy Sauve was announced as injured and out for this weekend’s games, it was clear that we’d be seeing Tera Hofmann step up — and step up she did, on a PTO with the Beauts that was signed Friday night. With a 31-save performance, she earned the second star of the game and remained calm and cool in net even with a tremendous late-game effort from La Force.

“It was really fun,” she said of her first start with Buffalo. “I’m so lucky to have so many people supporting me behind the scenes, and I really couldn’t have gotten it done without them and then my team just backing me up on the ice... [I’m really] grateful for that.”

Down: Uncertainty surrounding Kassidy Sauve

We saw a lot of Sauve in the preseason, and we know at this point that she’s a strong, athletic goalie. Unfortunately, it’s been a bit up and down for her in terms of maintenance and health already, and I’m hoping this isn’t a sign of what’s to come because I’d love to see her find her stride the same as Hofmann and Berndtsson have, especially as a rostered player who’s been working hard to get here.

Up: Defensive scoring

Whitney Dove, Maddie Truax, Toni Matzka, and Allison Attea all scored their first career goals this past weekend, marking a definite swing in the pendulum when it comes to the blueline. Prior to puck drop, I had mentioned how important it was to get the back end moving the play forward, and they certainly did that in both games, pushing the Beauts’ offensive output to 3.5 goals per game to start the season. Dove was the easy standout, not only playing amazing hockey in her own zone and in the neutral zone, but with a pair of goals to round out the weekend.

“We really preach that we’re a five-unit group, and so... we want to enter the zone a five-unit group and we want everyone to be an option offensively,” head coach Rhea Coad said post-game Sunday. “We were working on [the defenders] releasing the puck as quickly as they can, like Maddie Truax’s goal last night was a perfect example of that, so we were really happy with our D in the O-zone and the D-zone.”

Down: Special teams still a struggle

La Force is a physical team with some work to do when it comes to handling their frustrations better on the ice. They gave Buffalo 10 opportunities on the skater advantage, and the Beauts in turn capitalized on... zero of them. While it had glimmers of hope, the power play just could not sustain the zone or take advantage of the more open ice.

In addition, while they remained quite disciplined in comparison to games past, their penalty kill was only at 75 percent. It’s obvious that the Beauts still need to work on their systems and their cohesion when it comes to special teams, especially since it’s clear that officiating is still inconsistent in the PHF. Part of me thinks that, especially with the upgrade in defense, it’s just a matter of the team continuing to gel and get used to each other, but I think there’s definitely some work to be done with the structure as well.

Down: Interesting OT/shootout choices

Courtney Maud’s line (Maud between Claudia Kepler and Anjelica Diffendal) not only combined for two goals, but generated a ton of offensive buzz with Maud’s speed, Diffendal’s playmaking and passing, and Kepler’s tenacity especially along the boards. They didn’t see a second of overtime.

Emma Nuutinen was the lone scorer in the shootout for Buffalo, and as such she went out for three rounds. No Autumn MacDougall, no Diffendal, no Dominique Kremer — and no other goals in the shootout.

Rhea Coad’s explanation for the decisions was that she went with who was scoring during practice, where they’ve simulated shootout and breakaway situations over the past few weeks. And it makes sense to an extent, but what also makes sense is giving the players who have had the most impact on the game in front of you a chance to continue that momentum, and unfortunately that’s not what happened Saturday night. Chalk it up to a learning experience for sure.

Up: A much better start than anticipated

The caliber of play is already night and day from the start or even the end of last season. While the vibes have remained in place, there have been little things I’ve picked up on when it comes to the Beauts’ 2022-23 version already — the passing is sharper, the play is more disciplined, and the zone breakouts and entries (while still needing work) are coming together much more nicely. Moreover, as mentioned before, it really seems like the back end is strengthened, although the forward corps definitely still has some catching up to do.

Of course, it’s only been one weekend against one team, so anything can happen between now and when the Beauts come back to Northtown Center in December. And as was the case last season, it still seems like they have those one or two-minute gaps where a team like Montreal (or Minnesota, or the Riveters, or Boston) can capitalize and catch a goalie off guard. Those are some of the growing pains that come with a team this young, and they still have a lot of time yet to get those pains out of their system.

With a bye week for all PHF teams this coming weekend, the Beauts will be heading on the road for their next matchup against a powerhouse in Connecticut. The Whale absolutely massacred them 7-1 during preseason play, but it’s a new ball (or in this case, puck) game and with some newfound confidence heading into Milford — plus a shocking 4-0 shutout loss for the Whale against Boston this past weekend — who knows?

Puck drop is at 6 pm EST Saturday, Nov. 19, and at noon EST on Sunday, Nov. 20, at Milford Ice Arena.