Now that each NWHL team has played at least 10 games we’re starting to get a better idea of who the favorites to win the 2019 Isobel Cup are. After a closer look at the schedule and the numbers, there’s a case to be made that the Buffalo Beauts are the current “team to beat” in the NWHL.
If you find that statement to be controversial, you are definitely not alone. After all, the Beauts are currently third in the standings. And, not that long ago, they were 2–3–0 after their first five games of the year. But a lot can change in nine weeks. Since that rocky start the Beauts have been on a roll despite some shakeups with the team’s hockey operations staff — which has only made their success all the more impressive.
Now, heading into Week 12 of the NWHL season, the Beauts are 7–4–0. They are undoubtedly hottest hockey club in the league right now — and that is just one of the reasons why they’re the team to beat.
Last weekend, the Beauts dominated the Riveters in a 5–1 victory. It was the first time that the two clubs had met since the 2018 Isobel Cup Final. It was also the Beauts’ third straight win. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. And that is exactly what the Beauts have done as of late. During this current three-game winning streak, the Beauts have defeated the Pride, the Whitecaps, and the Riveters all by at least four goals.
Since Nov. 18, the Beauts have gone 5–1–0 and have outscored their opposition by a whopping 23–6 margin — including a 15–3 goal differential at even strength. Four of those wins have come against the Pride or the Whitecaps. Furthermore, Buffalo’s only loss in that span was a 2–1 loss against Minnesota, in which they outshot the Whitecaps 34–27.
The Beauts have played four games against the league’s bottom-two teams — the Riveters and the Whale — while the Pride and Whitecaps have both played those teams five teams each. In other words, the Beauts have likely had the most difficult schedule (in regards to the strength of their opponents) among the NWHL’s top three teams.
Boston’s 8–3–0 record puts them in first place midway through the first month of the year. However, they are 1–2–0 against the Beauts. Against Boston, Buffalo has averaged 3.66 goals for and 2.0 goals against. It’s also worth noting that the Pride’s win against the Beauts, which came just before the Beauts’ current 5–1–0 run, coincided with the worst single-game performance from a Beauts’ goaltender this season — which was also Nicole Hensley’s only non-quality start of the season, per CreaseGiants’ data.
However, the Whitecaps are a different story. The Beauts have an underwhelming record of 1–3–0 against Minnesota, but there is a lot more to the story of that season series than the record.
Going by the numbers, Minnesota and Buffalo are about as closely matched as two teams can be after playing four games. Buffalo averaged 2.0 GF/GP in their meetings, while the Whitecaps averaged 1.75 GF/GP. The shot differential between Buffalo and Minnesota is even tighter: the Beauts averaged 31.0 SF/GP and 31.5 SA/GP in their four meetings with the Whitecaps.
It’s also worth noting that the Whitecaps’ first two wins against Buffalo occurred before their November break. In the first month of the season, the Whitecaps were shooting an unsustainably high 16.66 percent; they were a very lucky hockey club in their first two meetings against Buffalo. They’ve looked like a much different team since their 6–0–0 start to the season.
Before we go any further, we need to acknowledge that we are dealing with small sample sizes here. And we are dealing with small sample sizes because they are all we really have to work with. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t discern a great deal from the first 11 weeks of the 2018–19 NWHL season, especially when we compare the Beauts, Pride, and Whitecaps.
According to Even-Strength.com, the Beauts’ 23.91 5-on-5 SOG/GP is the best in the league and is significantly better than Minnesota's 17.08 5-on-5 SOG/GP. More importantly, the Beauts have the lowest 5-on-5 SA/GP in the league at 17.36. So, there’s definitely some evidence that the Beauts are enjoying the majority of the shot share during the most crucial aspect of any game: even strength play.
One might suspect that the Beauts’ outstanding shot differential during 5-on-5 play this season is a result of their playing more games against the Whale than the Whitecaps or the Pride. Connecticut struggles more than any other team to generate shots at even strength, and the Beauts have played them twice more than the Whitecaps and once more than the Pride. However, Buffalo has gotten the better of the Pride and the Whitecaps in the 5-on-5 shot differential in head-to-head matchups. Against the Pride, the Beauts have had 52.27 percent of the 5-on-5 shot share. Against the Whitecaps, Buffalo had a 57.45 percent of the 5-on-5 shot share.
Buffalo has also shown a clear ability to generate shots in the most dangerous area of the ice: the “home plate area” in front of the opposition’s net. Why is this important? Because shots taken from inside this home plate area are more likely to go in than shots taken outside of it. Teams that get more chances from that area in any given game are, generally speaking, more likely to outscore the opposition. And thus far, the Beauts have definitely proven they can create chances from that valuable real estate when it matters most: during 5-on-5 play.
Since Whitecaps goaltender Amanda Leveille has come back down to earth at the start of December, there’s been zero doubt as to which NWHL team has the best goaltending.
The Beauts’ combination of Shannon Szabados and Hensley is as good as it gets. Together, they have a .944 save percentage in 11 games this year, which is significantly higher than the .904 Team Sv% of the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps. Four of Buffalo’s seven victories this season have been shutout wins. The rest of the league’s goalies have just two shutouts combined. Hensley and Szabados are also first and second, respectively, in GSAA/30 (goals saved above average per 30 shots).
Elite goaltending will always tip the balance in favor of one team over another if the two are otherwise closely matched. That universal truth of hockey is all the more true in the NWHL, where playoff series are decided by one-game showdowns. One needs only remember Brianne McLaughlin’s unbelievable 60-save performance against the Pride in the 2017 Isobel Cup Final to appreciate that.
Odds and ends
There is still a lot of hockey to be played, and there’s still a lot that can go right and wrong for all five of the NWHL’s teams. With that being said, the Beauts have performed admirably despite facing the hardships of a difficult schedule, a coaching change, and the pressure of lofty expectations. If anything, we haven’t seen them at their best.
Despite their abundance of talented forwards, the Beauts have the third-highest team shooting percentage in the league. There are a number of key skaters for Buffalo who have been battling against bad puck luck this year. Kelly Babstock recently snapped a nine-game goal drought by scoring goals in back-to-back games. Corinne Buie and Taylor Accursi, both of whom are proven goal scorers, are stuck at just one goal this season. And elite offensive defenders Emily Pfalzer and Blake Bolden have just three goals combined.
The biggest concern for the Beauts and new general manager and head coach Cody McCormick, moving forward, is adding stability and depth to the blue line. Buffalo has lost two solid defenders — Sarah Edney and Sarah Casorso — to retirement since Jan. 7. McCormick needs to bolster the team’s depth and find a way to tap into some of the untapped potential of his existing roster. There’s no better dynamic duo in the NWHL than Maddie Elia and Hayley Scamurra, but McCormick will need his other two lines to contribute more often if he wants to secure home ice for the playoffs.