When some of us think of defenders in hockey we think of big, physical players who use their size to serve as gatekeepers to the offensive zone and the slot. Even without hitting physicality is just as important in the women’s game as it is in the men’s game. Size and strength aren’t imperative to being an effective blueliner, but they certainly help. But sometimes we see defenders who excel despite their small statures - and there is no better example of this than Isobel Cup Champion Emily Pfalzer.
Through the NWHL’s first two seasons Pfalzer was the smallest player in the league. As the face and captain of the Beauts franchise she is a living, skating example that size doesn’t matter if you have talent and can process the game at a high level.
There are few players who excel the way that Pfalzer does when it comes to making split-second decisions both with and without the puck. Her quickness and hockey sense has made the 24-year-old one of the best two-way defenders in women’s hockey.
Pfalzer has been a member of the United States Hockey National Camp since age 14. She played in two U-18 Women’s Worlds before she stepping onto the ice with the Boston College Eagles. BC recruited her after watching her win silver with USA at the 2010 U-18 Worlds and, as an alternate captain, win gold in 2011 in the same year that she helped lead the Mississauga Chiefs (PWHL) to the Alumni Cup Final.
As a freshman at Boston College Pfalzer was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team thanks in part to scoring five goals and picking up 13 assists. She stepped into a bigger role as a sophomore. Pfalzer finsihed her second NCAA season with 17 points and a +29 plus/minus rating, an improvement from the +9 rating she posted as a freshman.
In Pfalzer’s junior year something clicked in the offensive side of her game. She blocked 38 shots and registered 67 of her own on her way to scoring six goals and 19 assists. The NCAA took notice. Pfalzer was named Hockey East’s Best Defenseman and was also named an Hockey East First Team All-Star.
In Pfalzer’s senior season with the Eagles she took her game to another level with a “C” stitched to her chest. She had 42 points in 36 games, crushing her previous career-high, and finished the season as a +42. Pfalzer was impossible not to notice. She was everything the Eagles needed her to be. At year’s end she was named a Patty Kazmaier Top-10 Finalist, a First Team All-American and Hockey East’s Best Defenseman for the second consecutive season.
In that same season Pfalzer had a goal and an assist in four games with the United States women’s national team at the World Championship. She won gold with USA that year, a triumph she would go on to repeat in 2016 and 2017. Pfalzer’s gold medal victory in 2017 was especially significant because of her participation in the USWNT’s #BeBoldForChange campaign. After demanding equity and fair compensation she and her teammates proved to be unstoppable skating on American ice. In five games she had a goal and assist and finished the tournament with a +4 rating.
After her college career Pfalzer became one of the brightest stars of the new NWHL. She was a perfect fit for the Buffalo franchise with her western New York roots and was named the captain of the Beauts in the team’s second season. In 2015-16 helped lead her new team to the Isobel Cup Final by scoring five points in five postseason games against the Whale and Pride. Buffalo fell to the Pride in a best-of-three series in 2016, but one year later Pfalzer and her teammates upset Boston in a rematch.
Pfalzer was an NWHL All-Star in the league’s first two seasons. In 32 NWHL regular season games she has scored 19 points while being tasked with shutting down many of her national team teammates including Kelli Stack, Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan and Alex Carpenter.
For the time being her NWHL career is on hold, but it is safe to say that Pfalzer has already made a lasting impression in the league’s short history.
Like her NWHL and national team partner-in-crime Megan Bozek, Pfalzer’s current focus is on winning gold at PyeongChang. But unlike Bozek, this will be Pfalzer’s first time playing in the Olympics. As a young veteran she will be expected to play with consistency and be a key cog in the USWNT’s lethal transition game. On both the professional and international stage Pfalzer has proven she has the puck skills to make that happen.
For Pfalzer and her national team teammates it’s “Gold or Bust” in PyeongChang, but she still has a bright future ahead of her after the 2018 Games. She’s a safe bet for national team in 2022 in Beijing and a lock to be on the national team at the Worlds and 4 Nations before then.
Something to keep an eye on will be whether or not Pfalzer returns to Buffalo and the NWHL after PyeongChang. It would be hard to imagine the Beauts franchise without the Getzville, New York native on the blue line. On and off the ice she has been crucial to the success of the Beauts and the NWHL as a whole.
Is This Rating too High or too Low?
Pfalzer’s popularity in the NWHL and her recent Isobel Cup victory as the captain of the Beauts likely had a lot to do with her landing at the six spot on our list. But make no mistake, Pfalzer is an exceptional defender and absolutely belongs on this list. There are very few blueliners under the age of 25 who can compete with her achievements in the NCAA, in international competition and as a professional.
Like so many other exceptional defenders Pfalzer’s talent doesn’t always reveal itself on the scoresheet. In her second NWHL season she had seven points in 15 games after scoring 12 points in 17 games in 2015-16. But anyone who watched the Beauts play will be able to tell you how crucial she was to the team’s success. Pfalzer is capable of playing a monstrous amount of minutes against players who are sometimes 50 pounds heavier and almost a foot taller than she is. She never slows down and she never takes shifts off. Pfalzer consistently plays outstanding defensive hockey while moving the puck with the purpose. Her skill set has made her invaluable to every team she’s played for, including those she has helped lead to championship games.