First of all, if you didn’t watch the Isobel Cup Championship game on Sunday night, I’m sorry for your loss.
The Buffalo Beauts and the Boston Pride competed in the type of game that reminds you why hockey is so amazing. Strip away the struggles of a growing league, the harsh inequalities faced by the players, and the unfair and untrue claims that the women’s game will never be as good as the men’s game, and you’re left with sixty minutes of pure excitement. Both teams left it all on the ice at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, but it was Buffalo that lifted the cup after fighting until the final seconds for a 3-2 victory.
With the same two teams competing this year and in last year’s inaugural Isobel Cup Final, this game had the possibility to be predictable. Boston and Buffalo even finished in the same places two years straight — Boston first, Buffalo third. The Pride went 16-1 during the regular season, while the Beauts had a modest 6-10-1 record. However, everyone who’s been watching the NWHL for long enough knows that the Buffalo Beauts can never be counted out and will always fight until the very last second.
That’s exactly what they did on Sunday.
“Our team has always been a grinding team. We don’t quit until the end — or, we don’t quit ever, sorry,” Beauts captain Emily Pfalzer said with a laugh during the postgame press conference.
Sandwiched between her two much taller teammates, Brianne McLaughlin and Megan Bozek, the captain spoke those strong words advice for Beauts players of the future. Minutes before, Pfalzer limped down the hallway to the media room, the result of blocking multiple Pride shots with her body as a part of a stunning defensive performance.
It was a stunning performance on all areas of the ice, actually.
McLaughlin, who only found out on Saturday that she would get the start in net on Sunday, faced 58 shots on goal from the Pride. She blocked 56 of them. Her teammates joked that she usually doesn’t even face that many shots during practice.
Meanwhile, the Beauts managed only 15 shots on Pride goalkeepers, but it was a matter of quality, not quantity. Buffalo scored all three of their goals on Boston’s top goalkeeper, Brittany Ott, who was pulled from the game in the second period after allowing what would end up being the game-winning goal to her former teammate, Corinne Buie.
Buffalo spent the majority of the game protecting McLaughlin, clogging the shooting lane and making it nearly impossible for the Pride to get close to the net. When they did, McLaughlin was there to make a brilliant — and, for Pride players and fans, frustratingly amazing — save. Even though Pride fans have gotten to witness multiple shutouts from Ott over the past two seasons, McLaughlin’s performance last night was one that will not soon be forgotten, if ever, by women’s hockey fans.
During the NWHL’s second annual All-Star Weekend in February, McLaughlin announced her plan to retire at the end of the season. She has won two Olympic silver medals and set the NCAA record for most saves (3,809) while playing for Roger Morris University. McLaughlin was the first player to ever sign for the Buffalo Beauts.
“I honestly tried not to think about it,” she said when asked if her looming retirement was weighing on her mind prior to Sunday’s game.
McLaughlin was not the only one playing her final game in Beauts’ blue and grey on Sunday.
Earlier this season, Harrison Browne became the first ever openly transgender athlete on a professional team in America. Sunday night, he was the first to win a championship.
No words can do this moment justice.
Technically, this victory is the first ever professional championship won by a Buffalo sports team. Unless you count lacrosse, minor league baseball, and the pre-NFL Buffalo Bills. Buffalo’s humiliation and Boston’s winning ways are well-documented, and the Beauts were finally able to flip the script on Boston on Sunday.
So, as a Boston fan, why should this matter to you?
I’m just going to come out and say it — watching a team win all the time isn’t that interesting from a journalistic perspective. Would it have been cool for the Pride to go 19-0? Sure. But writing 19 identical stories is boring for both the writer and the reader. Boston losing to Buffalo, who they defeated in the Isobel Cup Championship last season, creates a storyline — a rivalry. The Pride and the Beauts faced each other in the second game in the league’s history on October 11, 2015. The Pride defeated the Beauts 4-1, making the Beauts look like the weakest team in the league. They’ve certainly come a long way since then.
Buffalo did what no other NWHL team has ever done — they held the Pride scoreless for 55 minutes and 27 seconds, the closest any team has ever come to shutting out the Pride. Although the Pride were able to spoil the shutout with goals from Alex Carpenter and Hilary Knight, neither of them were at even strength. Carpenter got hers during a power play and Knight’s came with four seconds left on the clock with goalkeeper Lauren Slebodnick on the bench and the extra skater on for Boston.
This game was also crucial to the growth of the league, both in terms of expansion and media attention. For a young league like the NWHL, having one team become a juggernaut while the other three fight for second place would be detrimental. It’s simply uninteresting, as we can all understand from being forced to exist in a world where the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup and compete in outdoor games over and over again. Everyone loves seeing the underdog win, and the Buffalo Beauts are incredibly likable underdogs.
As the team posed for a photo with the Isobel Cup, Kelley Steadman joked, “you don’t have to be good all the time!” Everyone on the ice, teammates, coaching staff, and photographers alike, laughed along with her.