The NWHL’s first-ever Isobel Cup Final match may have been one of the league’s most exciting games of the year. It was highlighted by major momentum shifts, star players doing starry things, great goaltending, a late-game rally, overtime and a controversial penalty shot.
Boston Pride In Control
The Pride controlled large swaths of play early on. While the Beauts managed to hang with them for the opening 10 minutes, the Pride looked like the team to beat, pushing the pace and able to latch onto any advantage to swing the momentum back their way.
That was a key to the game. The Beauts were able to take control, but when the Pride gave their head a shake, they were consistently able to snap out of it. It showed how capable they are of taking the series, even if the Beauts are playing with “a chip on the shoulder,” as Beauts captain Emily Pfalzer said after the game.
Despite outshooting Buffalo 9-5 in the first, the score was knotted at zero. In the second, Boston showed what a dangerous team they can be, particularly on special teams.
A Brianna Decker tripping penalty late in the first gave the Beauts a power play to start the second. After it was killed Decker came flying out of the box, catching a pass to get a breakaway on Beauts goaltender Brianne McLaughlin, who stopped Decker. But she wasn’t able to stop Blake Bolden from pushing in the rebound.
At the midpoint of the period Jillian Dempsey gave Buffalo another power play, but a bad penalty by Hailey Browne — her first of two game-changing penalties — made it four a side. Star defenseman Gigi Marvin potted a slapshot from the point and gave the Pride some breathing room. Giving the Pride more ice to work with, even shorthanded at times, plays toward their strengths.
The Changing Tide
Things shifted after that. Shelby Bram — who had a great game for Buffalo — posted the Beauts first marker, collecting garbage out front. That allowed the Beauts to enter a wild third period with only a 2-1 deficit.
Pfalzer — who finished with a goal and two assists, earning third star of the game honors — tied it up at the 6:28 mark of the third.
With just 7:22 left in the game Kelley Steadman gave the Beauts took advantage of a power play, grabbing their first lead of the night and their third unanswered goal. Steadman has been fantastic in recent weeks, so much so that Boston coach Bobby Jay admitted they had to game-plan for her. Bolden had the job of shadowing Steadman frequently throughout the game and was able to limit her opportunities. Though, when asked about Bolden being all over her after the game, Steadman responded she “didn’t notice.”
Prior to giving Buffalo the lead, Boston had been able to take a little of the ice back. Coach Jay called a time out that seemed to be a flash point for the Pride. Coach Jay said he didn’t do anything special to spark them, just told them, “You’ve got the answer.”
Shortly after the Steadman goal, Boston got a power play and Hilary Knight answered the bell, tying the game with just 4:41 left in regulation.
OvertimeFor the first time we saw the NWHL playoff overtime rules in play. They play IIHF rules (however, the NWHL plays 4-on-4 and the only IIHF rules I find don’t specify that, but that’s how World Juniors goes, so…). Buffalo hung with Boston throughout the game, but when Boston ran out Knight, Decker, Marvin and Bellamy as their first overtime unit, it was clear who this format gave the advantage to.
Boston shut Buffalo down entirely. In the 2:29 of overtime we saw the Beauts didn’t manage a single shot, while the Pride peppered McLaughlin with seven. She stopped every one of them.
This is where things get a little controversial. A broken play left a loose puck sitting behind McLaughlin. Browne was called for covering the puck with her hand in the crease, which is a penalty shot. The Beauts, Pfalzer in particular, didn’t like the call and let the ref know it.
“I obviously didn’t have the best angle, but I knew she had to have at least cradled it around her,” coach Jay said. “I knew she was in the crease and I knew the puck was there. I knew instantly that it had to be a penalty shot.”
There was some confusion. The puck sat at center ice with no one approaching it for some time, almost as though no one could actually believe they were awarding an overtime penalty shot in the Final.
Once the confusion subsided, the choice was obvious. As Knight skated to center ice, Beauts fans in the crowd groaned loudly.
“There isn’t anyone else I’d rather have out there,” Jay said.
Knight beat McLaughlin and that was that. Boston took game one.
The huge Buffalo contingent in the crowd was not thrilled with the refs, but the sentiment wasn’t universally shared. “I think the referee made a great call. From my point of view the puck was covered in the crease,” said Knight, who was on the ice when the penalty was called.
Heading Into Game Two
For Boston, who was dominant in stretches and has the fire power to best Buffalo, it was a huge win. Every win is big in a best of three, but a loss would have given Buffalo momentum. It would have told them they can hang with Boston and maybe win this. They can hang with Boston, but it’s no longer clear that they can win this.
With the win, the Pride was able to take the wind out of their sails. “They had a lot of momentum coming into this weekend,” said Pride goaltender Brittany Ott. “We knew they were going to give us a heck of a game. They’re a gritty team.”
Despite outshooting Buffalo 34-20, the Pride allowed the Beauts to stay in the game at times and will have to play a full 60 Saturday to end Buffalo’s season. “We totally gave them the third. That’s a hole that we dug for ourselves,” Knight said.
The Pride enter Saturday night with a chance to win it all and give us our first look at the NWHL’s chalice. “We’ve had the Isobel Cup on our minds since day one and this is our weekend,” said Ott.
“Denna [Laing] wants to see the Cup too,” she added.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.