Boston Pride head coach Paul Mara wouldn’t admit it during his last media availability before his team’s NWHL semifinal game against the Toronto Six on March 26. But we have no problem saying that the line of Jillian Dempsey, McKenna Brand, and Christina Putigna is Boston’s no. 1 line.
“Which one are you talking about?” Mara playfully replied when The Hockey Writers asked what makes the line so successful. We’re referring to Dempsey’s line, coach. “Oh. They’re our top line? Geez,” he deadpanned. “I’ll have to go look at the video again to make sure that’s the case,” he added with a chuckle.
When they are at the top of their game – they are the best in the league. Just look at how they dominated the league for 25 games last season. The trio combined for 108 points, 105 of which came in the best regular-season performance by any NWHL team ever. Yes, even better than the Knight-Decker-led early editions of the Pride.
“I think it was the second period of our first game last season against the Riveters where I put Tig (Putigna) with Demps and Brandy and from that moment on, it clicked. They work extremely well together, they read off of one another,” said Mara before adding another quip.
“I think Demps does most of the hard work and gets the puck to Tig and Brandy,” he said before starting to laugh. “No, they’re a fantastic line and they do everything the right way. We expect a lot of them this weekend.”
When the Pride hit the ice on Friday for the first-ever NWHL game on a major cable network – NBCSN – they will be looking for some revenge against the Six. Toronto bested Boston 2-1 back on Jan. 26 in Lake Placid, a game in which the Pride led 1-0 heading into the third period where Dempsey suffered an upper-body injury.
“She was really out for the last three or four games we played,” said Mara of his captain Dempsey. “Just a gutsy and brave performance by her up there, she wasn’t 100%, But she’s back.”
The lone goal by the Pride that day was scored by Putigna, converting a pinpoint, cross-ice pass from Brand on the power play. Over the past two seasons, Boston hasn’t had many opportunities for redemption, which tends to happen when you lose once in a span of 25 games. But they definitely sound like a team ready to (finally) finish what they started last season – the franchise’s quest for a second Isobel Cup.
“We always have fun, we enjoy being out there and playing the game. That right there helps to keep things light in practice where we can compete hard, but have that focused fun as well. That’s a big component of our line’s dynamic,” said Dempsey when asked why the trio has been so ultra-successful.
“We complement each other, we fit and find each other, and break it down after each shift. I’m always trying to break down every single detail and they’re like ‘uhh we’re moving on to the next one.’ I talk often. Sometimes maybe too much,” the Boston captain added, unable to hide her grin.
In just 31 NWHL games, Putigna has soared up the league’s all-time scoring list and will start next season ranked 21st with 37 points (10g-27a). She could’ve won Newcomer of the Year last season with her 29 points in 24 games, and in Lake Placid, she was one of the best players in the league with eight points (2g-6a) in seven games.
“Last season I think we had every forward on our team with us in that first game/the first period against the Riveters,” Dempsey said of the pre-Putigna period for her and Brand, who have been linemates dating back to season 4. “Then we found Tee and things went really well; ever since then we’ve been able to build off of it.”
“I think in post-collegiate playing careers it’s hard to keep consistency with players on your line, or your team. Those things seem to be ever-changing from season to season. This year has been great to build on that consistency, be able to pick up where we left off. We’re confident and excited to play.”
While Dempsey keeps things anchored on the line with her relentless two-way play at center, Brand and Putigna dazzle defenders with their tape-to-tape passing and superior vision on the ice.
“I’m pumped that I have the opportunity to play alongside two incredible athletes, two of the top players in our league, in the world frankly,” added Putigna. “I’ve learned so much from them, grown my game, tremendously. Just even from last year to this year, but especially from Providence until now.”
“Everyone is excited and we just want to win,” Putigna said of the upcoming weekend. “I know we can and we know we can.”
Fans of the Pride and followers of the team on social media may have seen references of Golden Girls in posts involving the Dempsey-Brand-Putigna trio. So how’d that all come about?
During team practices, each line is assigned a different colored jersey and their line’s jersey color: gold. “I think you started that one Tee,” said Dempsey.
“I don’t know, I’ll always try to give the lines some names, but that one we just stumbled upon jokingly. It’s stuck with the three of us,” Putigna said sheepishly. “We just like to keep it light and I guess that helps when Paul is ripping on us all the time,” she added with a sly smile.
Play to Win
We circled back and asked the Boston coach who he would say his top line is. His final response: “I’ll have to flip a coin or roll the dice. We trust all four of our lines. Also, I see two of them on here (zoom call) so we can’t pump their tires too much,” added a laughing Mara.
“We have faith in all 21 of our players going out there. This will be one of those games where you can’t take a shift off, you can’t take a period off, you can’t take any time off. You have to play every single shift like it’s your last and our players know that. That’s how it’s going to go. If you’re not going for one or two shifts, you probably won’t get another one.”
That might seem harsh, but the Isobel Cup is on the line. Win two games in two nights and you can celebrate being a champion all summer long. Boston has earned that opportunity with their 27-5-0 record over the past two seasons.
Mara has earned the respect of his players, not only because of his NHL expertise but also because his record speaks for itself. Since taking over as the Pride’s head coach on May 30, 2018, his record is 37-10-0 in the regular season and 1-1 in the postseason. Before taking the job, he was an assistant for the US Olympic Team that won a gold medal in Pyeongchang.
“He has goals for this team and is very clear about his expectations for us. He keeps adding more tools to our team in terms of the players he has added each season,” said Dempsey of her coach for three seasons now.
“When Paul came aboard in year four we built a strong foundation of what we want this program to be and have continued to add on to it. He really gives us the freedom to play our own game. We wanna play fast, we wanna play hard.”
Having covered this team and league since year one we’d be shocked if Boston didn’t get their revenge against Toronto on Friday night. But that’s why they play the games.
“We’ll have our hands full playing them. They’re a fantastic team and well-coached,” said Mara of Toronto. “We’re looking forward to the challenge and I think our team is up for it.”
Two things are for certain: 1) the Pride will be putting their best effort forward and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the league. 2) the line of Putigna-Dempsey-Brand is must-see TV on NBCSN this weekend.