THE HUNT FOR THE ISOBEL CUP BEGINS TONIGHT IN BUFFALO
By Mike Murphy and Nathaniel A. Oliver
Tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET at the Northtown Center at Amherst, the Buffalo Beauts and Connecticut Whale will play each other for the first time since Nov. 30, 2019. The winner of tonight’s game will play the Boston Pride in the Isobel Cup Semifinal in Boston on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET. But there can be only one winner. After a 24-game regular season for both teams, the playoffs are finally here.
The Beauts won all five games of the regular season series. However, four of those five victories were decided by two goals or less and three of those final scores were skewed by an empty-net goal – the other was a 5-4 overtime win on Oct. 19. It also goes without saying that both teams have undergone significant changes since the last time they faced each other.
“I think both teams have come a long way over the course of the season,” shared Whale goaltender Cassandra Goyette. “We’ve definitely both had some ups and downs, but I think that we’re a completely different team than we were back when we played Buffalo in the early parts of our season. As a team, we’re all optimistic and excited for Friday. If we stick to our brand of hockey and stay disciplined, I think we can achieve a good outcome.”
The Whale have been a different team in the New Year, led by superb goaltending and bolstered by additions including Janine Weber. While it’s true that their only two wins have come against the Riveters, the Whale have proven themselves capable of beating any team in the league with their staunch defense.
The Beauts were in a downward trend before the All-Star break, but they too have improved in recent weeks. Newcomers Mikyla Grant-Mentis – who just won honors as the VEDA Player of the Week – and goaltender Lea-Kristine Demers have made an immediate impact. The same is true of Kristin Lewicki, who has injected speed and scoring depth into the lineup. Buffalo is a deeper, more complete team than they were in late November to finish the sweep of the season series.
In other words, tonight’s game would be must-see hockey even if it wasn’t the Play-In Game.
The Whale’s biggest test tonight will be finishing on their chances and staying out of the box to eliminate Buffalo’s power play from making an impact. However, Connecticut also needs to be aggressive on the forecheck if they want to gain a foothold in the offensive zone and establish a rhythm. The Whale need to find that balance to beat the Beauts.
“We need to continue to generate more offense by establishing a strong forecheck, getting lots of shots on net and capitalizing on our opportunities,” said Whale alternate captain Elena Orlando. “We need to play aggressive, take away their time and space and minimize their scoring opportunities.”
The big test for the Beauts will be if they can stay out of the box and find a way to crack the code on Connecticut’s defense at even strength. In the season series, the Whale had nine even-strength goals; the Beauts had 11. That’s tight for two teams with such different styles of play.
As is the case so often in the playoffs, the winner of tonight’s game will likely come down to which team’s goalie has the bigger game. If it’s Wolejko for the Whale and Demers for the Beauts, both teams will have starters that are unknowns to the opposition – just one more big wrinkle in a game full of storylines.
“I’m going to prepare as I did for my first weekend; focus on myself and be confident in my own abilities,” Demers said when asked about tonight’s big game. “I want to make sure my head is in the right place so I can perform at my best.”
The puck drops on the 2020 NWHL Isobel Cup Playoffs tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET. Tickets for tonight’s big game are available at beauts.nwhl.zone/tickets and fans can watch the action streaming live and free on the NWHL at Twitch. You don’t want to miss this one.
Photo Credit: Kate Frese, Bryan Johnson, Mike Hetzel