Looking back on the fifth NWHL season, I'll point to my Beauts' season preview and one sentence in particular, which really nicely captures their season: "Some growing pains with such a new squad can be expected."
The Beauts definitely experienced a lot of growing pains this season, with an almost-entirely new roster and a new coaching staff. It was probably the worst season in the franchise's history, filled with lengthy losing streaks and goals against that surely should've been stopped. The team also missed the Isobel Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
Save for Taylor Accursi, Corinne Buie, and Kelsey Neumann, the Beauts filled their roster with all new players, many of whom were NWHL first-timers. With the PWHPA movement, the Beauts lost many of their big names, like Hayley Scamurra, Maddie Elia, and Blake Bolden.
It's little surprise, then, that Accursi led the Beauts in both goals (16) and points (25). Without the Olympians and other big-name players, she found even more space to showcase her offensive skills. Buie recorded 13 points on the season, including two game-winning goals. (It's important to note that the NWHL season was longer this year, so naturally, many players surpassed their career highs.)
Joining Accursi and Buie were a lot of new players. On the blueline, Marie-Jo Pelletier was a staple of the Beauts' defense; she led the team with 30 blocks, also had 14 takeaways and contributed offensively with 21 points on the season. Fellow newcomers Lenka Čurmová and Iveta Klimášová also contributed nicely in their first NWHL seasons, with 18 and 11 points each, respectively. Čurmová was second on the team in blocks (23).
Forward Brooke Stacey only appeared in 14 games, as she was in and out of the lineup due to injury (and sat out the end of the season because of her pregnancy), but when she did play, she was arguably the best skater on the ice. Stacey accrued 16 points (8G, 8A), put up 31 shots on goal, and recorded one game-winning goal in her shortened season.
"We've had some ups and downs this year, but we did it all as a team. Wins, losses – we all did it as a group. This team came together within a very short period of time, almost completely from scratch," said head coach Pete Perram.
Goaltending was certainly interesting for the Beauts as well. Kelsey Neumann, who was never really a starting goalie in years prior, found herself as the lone returning netminder for Buffalo. She ended up with a 3-3-0-1 record and a .879 save percentage, and was often part of a tandem alongside newcomer Mariah Fujimagari (3-8, .865%). Fujimagari was injured late in the season.
Tiffany Hsu appeared in a handful of games, going 1-3 and putting up a .861 save percentage. The Beauts also added a fourth goaltender late in the year; Lea-Kristine Demers joined the team and went 1-1 with a .935 save percentage in just shy of 120 minutes of ice time in the regular season.
With a new coaching staff and many new players, the Beauts also found themselves on new ice. Instead of playing at LECOM Harborcenter, they built a new home at the Northtown Center at Amherst. This was due to the Beauts' relationship with Pegula Sports & Entertainment ending last year as the team returned to NWHL league control. Regardless of where they played, it was a rough season.
Buffalo was hot and cold early on in the season; they beat Connecticut 3-1 in their first game, then dropped a series to the Pride. Overall, the Beauts won six of their first ten games – and then went on an eight-game losing streak that lasted from December 21 until February 15. They finished the season by dropping five of their last six games, including the play-in game against the Whale.
Perhaps the coolest (literally) part of the season: the Buffalo Believes Classic, the first-ever outdoor regular-season game in NWHL history. Although the Beauts fell to the Riveters by an eventual score of 7-4, no one will ever forget Accursi's four-goal effort in the third period, the sold-out crowd, or the frigid chill in the air.
Overall, the Beauts went 3-10 on home ice, and 5-7 on the road. Their respective records against the other NWHL teams: 5-1 vs. the Whale; 2-4 vs. the Riveters; 1-5 vs. the Whitecaps; and 0-7 vs. the dominant Pride.
The Highs and Lows
↑ For a team that went through such a tumultuous offseason – losing the ownership of Pegula Sports & Entertainment, their entire coaching staff and their home rink, plus the majority of players leaving for the PWHPA – it's honestly a positive that there even was a Buffalo Beauts team this season.
↓ For the second straight season, the Beauts were the most-penalized team in the NWHL. They were handed 315 penalty minutes over the course of the regular season, significantly more than the Whitecaps (170). Their penalty kill (81%) was second-worst in the league.
↑ The Beauts' power-play was middle of the road this season. They were successful on 19 percent of their advantages, far better than the Whale (8%) and slightly better than the Riveters (15%). Both the Pride and Whitecaps led the league, as they were successful on 23 percent of their power plays.
↓ Buffalo allowed a league-high 116 goals-against this season – that's nearly 2.7 times the number of goals allowed by the best team (Boston, with 43 goals-against). Even the last-place Whale, who only accrued six points and won two games all season, allowed only 100 goals.
State of the Organization
Where do I even begin?
The Beauts entered this season on an essentially clean slate; it's almost as if it were season one of the NWHL and the franchise's existence. A completely new coaching staff, with Pete Perram at the helm and Mandy Cronin as the team's GM; a new rink, with the friendly confines of LECOM Harborcenter no longer quite so friendly; ownership back in the hands of the NWHL, as Pegula Sports & Entertainment split and returned operational control of the team to the league... pretty much every facet of the organization changed over the last year.
This was, of course, the first time in NWHL history that the Buffalo Beauts didn't make it to the Isobel Cup Final. Regardless of the changes in players/coaches/etc., it's something to remember, and something for the organization – or whatever pieces of it remain – to keep in mind. Beauts fans know the feeling of being in a championship game, and even winning the Isobel Cup, and they want to return to that. Although this season was a disappointment in some ways, it seemed as though many Beauts fans were just happy to have the team still around, given everything that happened.
With the current state of women's hockey – including the PWHPA movement, one-year contracts for all players in the NWHL, the current global pandemic – and looking back on all that's happened in the sport in the last 365 days, it's incredibly difficult to write about the state of any organization, or what it could be going forward. We've seen just how much can change, and how quickly that change can come, so it's challenging to write about a hypothetical future.
Things to consider in the offseason for the Beauts:
- Will we see the same coaching/management staff next season?
- How will the Beauts handle their netminders? They were the only NWHL team to play four goaltenders this season, and although none are signed for the next season (obviously), it's interesting to consider which you'd pick to keep around.
- Find a way to keep Taylor Accursi around, please.
- Negotiate with the Town of Amherst to maintain the Northtown Center as the home rink. Was it ideal? No. But did it work? Mostly.
(Photo: Mike Hetzel/NWHL)