The semifinals of the Isobel Cup Playoffs concluding Sunday night and nothing went quite as expected. The underdog Buffalo Beauts upset the Connecticut Whale, providing some serious drama to the opening round.
Clear Cut First Round
Entering the postseason the lay of the land seemed pretty clear. For better or worse, there was a large gap between the NWHL’s two best and two worst teams during the regular season.
The Pride dominated the regular season, entering their series against the fourth ranked New York Riveters with just three regulation losses all season. The Pride led the NWHL with 75 goals and allowed a league-low 39 goals. Meanwhile the Riveters won only four regular season games, allowed a league-high 76 goals and scored a league-low 40 goals, 16 fewer than the team above them.
In the other match, the Connecticut Whale beat the Beauts in all six regular season meetings. Not only that, the Whale started the season with eight straight wins, while the Beauts went 0-4-1 in their first five.
That easy narrative appeared to be confirmed after Friday’s games when the Whale shutout the Beauts and the Pride shutout the Riveters. The number one and two ranked teams were destined to meet in Newark for the first-ever Isobel Cup Final.
Change of Plans
The Riveters were outgunned 7-4 in Game Two, but gave the Pride a challenge. They pushed, scored and made the Pride look fallible. In the end, the Riveters tough style of play and great goaltending from Jenny Scrivens and Nana Fujimoto gave them a chance in the series, but they simply lack the offensive weapons to best the Pride.
The Rivs have talent up front in players like Liudmila Belyakova, Janine Weber, Madison Packer and others, but they couldn’t keep pace with the stars of the Pride, headlined by Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight, who capped off a hat trick with an empty netter in Game Two.
In the other series the Beauts came back and shocked the Whale with a 4-1 win Saturday. A Kelley Steadman goal half way through the first period gave the Beauts a lead they’d never relinquish.
The Beauts bringing some offense was huge, but the big story was goaltender Brianne Mclaughlin stopping 37 of 38 to force a win or go-home game.
Sunday, it was again the Beauts who came out and drew first blood. The number one star of the game, Megan Bozek, potted one just 8:33 into the game. The difference Sunday was that the Whale were ready to answer each Beauts attack. Five minutes later it was the Whale’s Kelli Stack evening out the score.
Late in the second period Buffalo’s Hailey Browne gave the Beauts the lead back. In another five minutes, the Whale would even things out at two apiece with a goal by Kelly Babstock.
But the Beauts would put in two in quick succession, including a goal by Kourtney Kunichika and Bozek’s second of the night, an empty-netter. The empty-netter by Bozek would stand as the game-winner after Babstock put in one more for the Whale in a late-game flurry that tested Mclaughlin.
Babstock’s late goal wasn’t enough to stop the upset. The Beauts withstood the barrage and find themselves the unlikely opponent of the Pride in the Isobel Cup Final.
The surprise victor of their series, the Buffalo Beauts are poised to face the regular season-champion Boston Pride in the Isobel Cup Final, taking place Mar. 11-13 at the New Jersey Devils practice facility in Newark, NJ.
The Final will be streamed live on the NWHL’s Cross-Ice Pass.