There’s meaningful playoff hockey being played in Buffalo this Friday night. The NWHL playoffs are starting and Buffalo Beauts take on the Connecticut Whale at Northtown Center in Amherst at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow night. Victory Press and women’s hockey reporter Melissa Burgess spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa about what the Beauts need to do to win this winner take all play-in game.
I'm Nick Lippa here with Melissa Burgess of Victory Press to talk Buffalo Beauts hockey and it's very exciting because it's meaningful hockey in March.
Melissa Burgess: And a Buffalo hockey team is in the playoffs.
But before we get to the play in game that's going to happen this Friday talking about the Buffalo Beauts taking on Connecticut, let's talk about how they wrapped up the regular season because they had been on a losing streak, but over the weekend, a little bit of improvement.
MB: Yep. So the Beauts traveled to New Jersey this past weekend for a pair of games against the Metropolitan Riveters who were just above them in the standings. Ultimately, as we kind of discussed last week, a pair of meaningless games in the standings because nothing was going to change. The Beauts lost on Saturday, but managed to pull out the win on Sunday. And you know, that's so important for a team that has struggled all season with consistency. They had a few lengthy losing streaks. Obviously, you want to end the season on a high note, especially heading into this play in game where anything can happen. Getting that win on Sunday really could help boost their morale as a team.
And they have a couple of new players that they've added since last week. Who are they and what are the roles for those new players?
MB: They added Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Léa-Kristine Demers, both from Merrimack both strong performers and they made an immediate impact really. Demers was in net for both games last weekend. I kind of figured she would be in for at least one after the signing but didn't expect that she would be in both. She made some huge saves really kept the Beauts in both games even though the one ended up being a loss and definitely showcased some skill. Grant-Mentis scored in her debut had another goal on Sunday, providing great offense. Those are keys if you're looking to win this game on Friday night.
Got to score goals and the Beauts have a history of winning games against some teams with a lot of talent by having strong goaltending performances. Potentially having an upgrade in net could help them come playoff time. It's a home playoff game in Buffalo against the Connecticut Whale Friday. What are we looking at?
MB: We haven't seen these teams face off in months. Their season series actually was over in November, but the Beauts did sweep that series and Connecticut won all of two games all season. But you also don't want to put too much stock into that because it's really a new season. I think in any sport, you say that playoffs are kind of a new season. Kind of a clean slate and especially with it being one game, anything could happen. But I'm sure the atmosphere will be great. And hopefully there'll be a good crowd there to support (the Beauts) and hopefully the players can kind of feed off that Friday night energy and feel the vibes.
If the Beauts win, they’d take on Boston, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One game is all it takes. Let's talk about the keys for this game for both teams. Let's start with the Beauts.
MB: You don't want to look too far ahead to that Boston game because anything could happen for the Beauts. One of their keys overall in the weekend will be to stay out of the penalty box. They were the most penalized team in the NWHL this season by a pretty decent margin. A lot of that came at home and although they didn't give up a ton of power play goals, I think their penalty kill was something like 81% which is pretty good. It still doesn't help you being down a player. It still limits your chances. It still makes things harder on your defense and your goalies. Makes it harder to score. So you got to stay out of the box. As we kind of mentioned the other key is goaltending. We don't know who it's going to be right now. The Beauts now have four goaltenders on their roster. You know if it's me, do you go with the hot hand in Léa-Kristine Demers? Because she just won a game. She played spectacularly over the weekend, but it's also only her third NWHL game ever. And the stakes are obviously pretty high because it's either you win or your season's over. So I don't know which way you go. Mariah Fujimagari, who was kind of the Beauts other main goalie, had some injury issues. Supposedly she's supposed to be back to 100%, but the signing of Demers kind of maybe brings that into question. So that's just another thing to look forward to. But also support for the goalie. That's something that I've seen as not just for Buffalo. Connecticut kind of did the same thing. Where your goalie obviously is your last line of defense, but you need the players in front of her to step up and knock away those rebounds and pound on those loose pucks so that the other team doesn't get that chance. So that's a huge. A huge key. And then just getting production across the board. You can't just have one or two players who are scoring you need everybody to contribute.
Not just Acursi. Not just a new addition. You look at the Whale, what would you say is the biggest thing that they bring to the table that could upset the Beauts in this game?
MB: I really think their goaltending has been strong. It obviously doesn't show very well in the standings, but they have Sonjia Shelly who has been great. This past weekend, she made some huge saves against a Minnesota team that has been really tough to play this season. Other than that, I think that the key for the Whale is just to score and that sounds really simple but they only scored 39 goals all season. That's 39 goals in 24 games. So someone else can do the math with that, but obviously that's not a lot of goals. It's not that they don't have the players who can score, because they definitely do. But they need to ramp up and obviously they know the stakes of this game. And the Whale are the only team in the NWHL who has not won the Isobel Cup. So either this year we're going to see the Whale win or we're going to see our first repeat champion.
You mentioned just score again. They had a game recently with only eight shots the entire game. It'll be interesting to see if they can turn that around. If the Beauts win, what do they have to look to in Boston?
MB: I think the first thing is, obviously the Pride are crazy good and they always have been. They won all but one game this season. They’ve actually been off for a few weeks, so they finished their regular season before this past weekend. But for the Beauts, if they win and go to Boston, the key is really going to be to keep their legs fresh because you're playing a late game on Friday night. An 8:30 p.m. puck drop. You're traveling presumably to Boston on Saturday if you're winning and then you're playing on Sunday afternoon. That's a quick turnaround. Not that the league hasn't seen back to back games this season, but obviously with the travel factor to that, that's something. But otherwise, it sounds simple but score, which is a challenge against Boston. They have great goaltending. But also limit their chances which we've talked about it before. They have so many powerhouse forwards and even defenders like Kaleigh Fratkin. (Forward) Jillian Dempsey, the captain who's just having a great season. You've got to find little ways to get those players off the puck. And again, just like I kind of mentioned before, support for the goaltending because Boston has shown this year they're right on it. They see a loose puck, it's theirs. Even if it's a rebound, that's probably getting into the net. Boston can dominate. They could score six goals in a period. And they probably have this season honestly. So it definitely will be an uphill battle for the Beauts, but I think you know, either way, you've got to look at it as it's one game at a time. You take Friday's game, you're facing a Whale team you haven't seen in a while. A Whale team that’s struggled a lot this season, but you've also struggled a lot this season. You think about that game. Once you win that game, you plan for Boston. Then maybe you look toward the Isobel Cup Final which there's no date or time or location for that. But of course that's likely pending the results of this weekend's games.
Three games away from a cup. Anybody at this point in the end has a chance. But Buffalo is getting home playoff hockey this year.
MB: I don't know where you're going to find a cheaper playoff hockey ticket in Buffalo. So just show up, bring that home energy because the Beauts have really benefited from that home energy this this year. And if you can't make it, you can always watch the games on Twitch. That's Friday night's game, if they make it to Sunday, or the Isobel Cup Semi Final, which is Minnesota and the Riveters. And then of course as well the Cup final will also be broadcast on Twitch. So plenty of ways to support women's hockey the coming next few days.
You can follow Burgess on Twitter @_MelissaBurgess for NWHL updates.
Read Burgess' work here at Victory Press.