The stage is now set and we know who the two combatants will be. The NWHL’s Isobel Cup Final will be played on Sunday Mar. 17 (1 PM CT/2 PM ET) inside of TRIA Rink in St. Paul, MN. For the fourth straight time in the 4-year history of the league, the Buffalo Beauts are one of the two teams vying for the Cup. Their opponent will be the Minnesota Whitecaps – a team that was first established in 2004 but is playing in their inaugural NWHL season.
For fans of women’s hockey, this was the matchup that you wanted – the two best teams in the entire league. Some would argue the two best women’s teams in the world.
— Buffalo Beauts (@BuffaloBeauts) March 16, 2019
Minnesota finished at the top of the 2018-19 standings with a record of 12-4-0 – good enough for 24 points. Their first place finish not only earned them home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, but gave them a bye for the opening playoff round. The Whitecaps ultimately had to face the winner of the Metropolitan Riveters’ and the Connecticut Whale’s semi-final, which went Metro’s way. Minnesota then defeated the Riveters 5-1 on Mar. 15 to move onto the Final.
Buffalo finished just a sliver behind Minnesota during the regular season. Posting their own record of 11-4-1 and 23 points, the Beauts seeded themselves in second place. Buffalo also had to dispel the Boston Pride in the opening round for a second straight season in order to make it onto the Final.
This game is indeed going to be close and could go either way. While we recognize that the chalice of Lady Isobel is for either team’s taking, THW looks at three reasons why the Cup will go to the Buffalo Beauts.
With Olympians Shannon Szabados and Nicole Hensley, and second-year Beaut Julia DiTondo as available options between the pipes, the Beauts possess the top goaltending for any team in the league. Buffalo gave up the least amount of goals of all five teams during the regular season – a mere 25 goals against in their 16 regular season games. They also combined for the most shutouts – a total of four – during the regular season as well.
Beauts head coach Cody McCormick will most likely give Szabados the nod in net for the Final. She certainly deserves it. Szabados turned aside all 31 shots she faced from Boston in the semi-final, and picked up the shutout as she backstopped her team to a 4-0 victory. Additionally, her numbers of 6-3-1 as a seasonal record, her 1.49 goals-against average and her .934 save percentage are rather staggering. Szabados only allowed 15 goals in her 10 games played and whitewashed the opposition twice.
Though she is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a silver medalist as well, the 32-year-old goalie is in her first NWHL season. Szabados is a finalist for both the NWHL’s Best Goaltender and Newcomer of the Year awards. Oddly enough, she will likely be facing the reigning Best Goaltender recipient, the Whitecaps’ Amanda Leveille, who earned the honor last season with Buffalo.
2) Firepower Galore
Buffalo’s 57 goals during the regular season were second only to Boston’s 60. While Minnesota was not far behind with 53 of their own, it was the Beauts who ended up reigning supreme in nearly all major offensive categories.
Sophomore Beaut Maddie Elia was the NWHL’s top goal scorer during the regular season. She beat goaltenders 12 times in her 16 games. What may be more important to note is how cleanly Elia beat them. Converting on 23.1% of her shots, that tied her for best in the league among all shooters to have played at least 10 games. Factor in Elia’s seven assists, and her 19 total points tied her for second most in the league alongside Minnesota’s Jonna Curtis.
Understandably so, Elia is also the Beauts’ finalist for the NWHL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
The player who did finish at the top of the points column also belongs to Buffalo. Hayley Scamurra – who is also Elia’s linemate along with Dani Cameranesi – scored 20 points (10G, 10A) in 16 games this season. She finished second in the league with 73 shots on net. Scamurra was the only player in the NWHL this season to record double digits in both goals and assists. She also helped Buffalo win their first and thus far only Isobel Cup in 2016-17.
The firepower does not stop there. In addition to Elia and Scamurra, the Beauts had five other players score 10 or more points. One of them was Cameranesi who scored 15 (4G, 11A) in only 14 games. Assembling her with her two linemates and the trio generated a staggering 54 points across Buffalo’s 16 games.
3) Something to Prove
As successful of a season as 2018-19 has been for Buffalo, it has certainly brought forth plenty of challenges. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” has become quite the cliché, but these Beauts have no problem staring turbulence straight in the eye.
Among the challenges that this team has faced was a December firing of the coaching staff that led them to the championship in 2016-17. There was also the sudden departure of the team’s general manager, who had been the driving force in sculpting this particular team. The Beauts also lost two of their best defenders – Sarah Edney and Sarah Casorso – to retirements during the season.
Despite all of that adversity, here they are – playing for the Isobel Cup in less than 24 hours.
These players have remained united no matter what challenges have come their way. Much of that has to do with the character that can be found in their locker room. Scamurra, Emily Pfalzer, Corinne Buie, Jacquie Greco, Jordyn Burns, Lisa Chesson, and Emily Janiga were all members of the Beauts’ 2016-17 squad that won it all.
Buie is the only player in NWHL history to have played in the Cup Final in all four seasons, winning the first Cup as member of the Pride during the league’s first season. Defender Blake Bolden was also a member of that same Boston Cup-winning team. Greco is the reigning Beauts recipient of the NWHL’s Foundation Award as the player most actively applying the core values of hockey to her community, as well as growing and improving hockey culture. Kelly Babstock is one of just a handful of original NWHLers still playing in the game. And, Szabados, Hensley, Pfalzer, Chesson, and Cameranesi have all won Olympic medals.
That is a tremendous amount of experience and wisdom comprised onto one roster. This is a team that knows how to play whenever the “going gets tough”. In fact, they excel at it.