NEWARK, N.J. — On paper, before the season began, it appeared that the NWHL’s first Isobel Cup championship was the Boston Pride’s to lose. Saturday, in Newark, New Jersey, the Pride claimed that title with a two-game sweep of the Buffalo Beauts.
The Pride ran the table, not losing once during the postseason. In fact, the last time they lost a game at all was Jan. 3 in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Beauts. The last time they lost in regulation was Nov. 29.
Confidence built through doing nothing but winning exuded from the team as they locked down the Beauts for a 3-1 win Saturday. It was even more clear on the ice after the game, where the players celebrated with teammates and family.
“At the beginning of the season I said we’d win the Isobel Cup,” said co-captain Hilary Knight, “and to be able to actually do it speaks to the character of my teammates.”
The bravado wasn’t misplaced. It wasn’t always easy, but the Pride has been a team on a mission. Their star players did starry things, but up and down the lineup they’ve had players executing their roles and creating a well-balanced team at both ends of the ice.
“We all have a job to do,” said forward Rachel Llanes. “We do it. That’s why we won the game and that’s why we won the Cup.”
“It’s pretty surreal actually,” said goaltender Brittany Ott after taking a lap with the Isobel Cup raised over her head. “This is what the season was all about. We were able to close it out in two games. It’s incredible.”
A two-game sweep of the Beauts sounds like a rout, but it was far from it. Game 1 featured a controversial finish. The Pride had to score late in the third to force overtime and won on a Knight penalty shot that closed out the sudden-death frame.
Saturday, playoff MVP Brianna Decker scored 11:05 into the first, but after that, it was the Brianne McLaughlin show. The Beauts goaltender got her team to the start of the third period with just a 1-0 deficit, despite the Beauts being outshot 12-2 in the first and 21-11 through two.
It wasn’t until the 9:25 mark of the third that Boston gained a two-goal lead. Shorthanded, the Beauts gave up a breakaway to Knight, which McLaughlin stopped. But even shorthanded the Pride’s offense comes in waves. Their top penalty killing unit of Knight, Decker, Gigi Marvin and Kacey Bellamy is so good that they’re frequently going even up on shots when their team is shorthanded.
That’s how when Knight recovered the rebound along the boards, she had Decker streaking down the weak side and ready for a one-timer that would prove to be the game-winner.
Two minutes later, Knight would score a dagger of her own.
While McLaughlin stole the show for the Beauts — and had a great postseason at large — Ott stood tall at the other end, in what was a goaltending duel for almost 50 minutes. It wasn’t until an Erin Zach power play marker with just 37 seconds left that Ott’s championship shutout was spoiled.
“I was hoping for the shutout,” said Ott smiling after the game, “but that’s all right.”
She stopped some dangerous Beauts rushes to keep the Pride’s hopes for a two-game series alive, including a shot from Buffalo’s Megan Bozek the knocked Ott over. “That’s typical Bozek,” said Ott. “She came full speed into the zone and sat on the puck. It’s happened to me before with her shots.”
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) March 13, 2016
The FinishHelmets, gloves and sticks littered the ice as Commissioner Dani Rylan walked the red carpet to center ice where she would present the Isobel Cup to Decker and Knight, the Pride co-captains. NWHLPA director Erica Lawler, white-gloved, brought the Isobel Cup to ice-level for its first champions to hold.
It was special not just because it was a championship, but because it was a historic moment. It was the NWHL’s first champion and what it cost to get there wasn’t lost on the players. It was a season of firsts, tragedies and incredible growth for women’s hockey, and that all came out on the ice.
Ott skated to Rylan after she and her teammates had their chance to carry the chalice around the ice. “I just said thank you. It’s been an incredible opportunity,” Ott said she told Rylan. “Such an incredible season. She put a lot of work into this and it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
The Pride also skated out a large wooden “24,” symbolic of the player missing from the ice, Denna Laing.
Laing suffered a significant spinal injury during the NWHL/CWHL exhibition game at the NHL’s Winter Classic. She continues to recover in Boston.
— Troy Parla (@TroyParla) March 13, 2016
The team, each with a “24” sticker on their helmet, FaceTime’d her into the on-ice celebration. “I said you better clear your schedule Monday,” Knight said. “We can’t wait to get back to Boston and bring her the Cup.”
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Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.