Saturday March 12th, 2016

NEWARK, N.J — At the start of the inaugural NWHL season, the Boston Pride were the favorites to win the league’s Isobel Cup. With the preseason signings of multiple Olympians, including two-time silver medalist Hilary Knight, arguably the world’s best women’s hockey player, the team appeared tough to beat on paper.

Now, at the season’s end, the top-seeded Pride and Knight have proven many times over that they are tough to beat in reality. Boston finds itself one win away from the title thanks to two clutch goals from its star forward on Friday, including an overtime penalty shot goal in a 4–3 win over the Buffalo Beauts at the home of the NWHL’s Finals, the New Jersey Devils Hockey House at Prudential Center.

Here are three thoughts on the wild finish:

Unexpected heroes made their marks

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While Knight and Buffalo’s Kelly Steadman took over the spotlight late, both teams received significant contributions from unexpected heroes in Game 1. The first came in the form of a goal from Pride defenseman Blake Bolden, who stuffed a rebound past Beauts goalie Brianna McLaughlin just 1:28 into the second period for a 1–0 advantage. 

The score from Bolden marked her second in as many contests, after she netted a score in the Pride’s 7–4 series clincher last week against the New York Riveters. Often overlooked on the star-studded Boston blueline, she had one goal and eight assists in 18 games in the regular season and used her offensive skills to put some life into an uneventful game with her tally. 

After blueliner Gigi Marvin extended the lead with a blast from the point at 11:55 of the second, the Beauts cut it in half in the waning minutes of the period when Shelby Bram took advantage of a broken play in the Boston zone, burying a shot from the slot past goalie Brittany Ott. Brams’s goal kept Buffalo from folding during a dominant second where the Pride held a 10-7 shot margin.

While the big names took over in the third, the second-period contributions from the likes of Bolden and Bram kick-started this game into gear.

It was Knight’s night

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Just as she did all season, Knight stepped up for her squad when it needed her most. The league’s scoring queen (15 goals, 18 assists in the regular season) came through in the clutch with an equalizing power play goal in the third to answer three straight goals from the Beauts. Knight’s tally, with just 4:41 left in the third, set up a fast and furious finish that took the game to overtime.

The biggest moment of the game, however loomed in the extra period, and Knight one-upped herself. Just 2:29 into OT, officials ruled that a Beauts defenseman had covered the puck with her hand in the crease, though viewers of the league's live stream could only get one angle of the play. The call led to a penalty shot and  the most significant moment of Knight’s season to date. Without hesitation, the power forward did what she does best and deposited the puck passed McLaughlin for the Game 1 win.

“It’s a little bit more pressure, sure,” Knight said. “But I had some good advice from my college coach Mark Johnson. He used to say ‘What’s the worst that could happen? You miss?”

Thankfully for the Pride, she didn’t, and it meant the difference.

Don’t count out the Beauts

Despite their 5–9–4 regular season record, the Beauts proved against the Connecticut Whale last weekend that they aren’t a squad to be taken lightly. After dropping Game 1 of the best-of-three semifinal series, Buffalo bounced back with a stellar defensive showing in Game 2, behind 37 saves from McLaughlin, and then kept the momentum going, utilizing two goals from Megan Bozek to turn in a 4–3 upset in the clincher. 

Similarly, the Beauts find themselves down once again heading into Game 2 against the Pride on Saturday. But as they proved with three straight goals after facing a 2–0 deficit late in the second period Friday, they don’t go away easily, nor do they plan to.

Obviously it’s a little frustrating to see a game end like that,” Beauts captain Emily Pfalzer said. “But we’re going to come out tomorrow fighting. We’ve got a little chip on our shoulder now.”

With two-time Olympian Meghan Duggan possibly back in the lineup after sitting out Friday’s tilt, expect another fight to the finish in Game 2, and if we’re lucky, maybe even a Game 3.

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