Marie-Jo Pelletier heard it on occasion during her time in minor hockey. Given her size, there were those who said there was only so far she could go, only a certain level she could reach and those who didn’t believe she was quite talented enough to make up for her diminutive frame.
Never deterred by the naysayers, though, the 4-foot-11 defensive dynamo used that to fuel her competitive fire. She never let it bother her. She sought to prove those people wrong. And frankly, it might be the very thing that propelled her on through prep school in New Brunswick, on to an excellent career at University of New Hampshire and now a breakout campaign as an NWHL rookie with the Buffalo Beauts.
“You can do whatever you want to do if you put the hard work in,” Pelletier said. “And I think that's what helped me growing up. Sometimes I felt like I did have to work a little harder in the gym or things like that…I had that mentality that I’m just as good as anyone if I put the hard work in.”
And it could be argued there were few NWHL defenders better than Pelletier this campaign. When the regular season wrapped up last weekend, she found herself third in scoring among all blueliners with 21 points, tied for second in goals by a rearguard with six and was the highest scoring first-year defender in the entire league. For her efforts, ‘MJP’ was selected as one of the Fans’ Three Stars of the 2019-20 campaign by way of a poll that received upwards of 5,000 votes. She also finished third in voting for the NWHL’s Newcomer of the Year award behind winner Kate Leary of the Metropolitan Riveters and runner-up Lovisa Selander, who captured Goaltender of the Year honors for her play in the Boston Pride crease.
Pelletier admits, however, that she was somewhat surprised by her success. She had an excellent tenure at UNH, posting 13 goals and 52 points in 143 career NCAA games, but her 21-point output this season was greater than any single-season total during her four-year collegiate career. For that, Pelletier credits a few things.
“Being more involved in the offense and putting more shots on net helped me this season,” Pelletier said. “And getting that monkey off my back in that first game against Connecticut in overtime definitely helped, as well. In college, I didn't score my first year. In my second year, it took me almost half the season to be able to get a goal. Getting a goal and getting some assists on the power play earlier on helped build that confidence.”
Lest one think Pelletier made her mark only on offense, though, it should be said that she plays with a tenaciousness and do-what-it-takes desire that belies her size. She logged major minutes and was as dedicated as defenders come. She had the black and blue from stopping a few blistering shots to prove it, too, as only the Connecticut Whale’s Shannon Doyle blocked more shots than Pelletier’s 30 this season.
“You get that feeling that you're putting everything you can out there and blocking a shot is sacrificing your body for your team, that you'll do whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net,” Pelletier said. “I find it's a big momentum builder for your team, too. I know when a teammate blocks a shot I get hyped on the bench or on the ice. There's pride coming out of it, too. I might have a bruise, but it was worth it.”
Now with the campaign in the books, Pelletier’s attention, along with the rest of Beauts teammates’ focus, shifts to the post-season, where Buffalo will host Connecticut in a one-off, do-or-die post-season play-in game. The two clubs haven’t clashed since the Beauts’ 3-1 victory over the Whale on the final day of November and there has been changes for both outfits over that time, be it simply settling in or additions to the group. But unlike Connecticut, which dropped both games of its season-ending set with the Minnesota Whitecaps, Buffalo is coming into the winner-take-all affair having ended the season with a 3-1 defeat of the Riveters.
“Getting that win on the Sunday, especially on Sunday, was very important for us to get some momentum going into this coming weekend just to get our confidence back, get the feet going,” Pelletier said. “I think we played with a lot of speed, a lot of team chemistry, too. To be able to use that and to bring that into this week's practices and Friday's game is very important.”
And while there’s a perception that whoever emerges from Friday’s play-in game will be nothing more than fodder for the Pride, who lost once all season and are the prohibitive playoff favorites, Pelletier doesn’t see it that way. She’s quick to remind that Buffalo had Boston on the ropes during a December meeting between the two sides, though the Pride managed to claw back from a three-goal deficit before eking out an overtime win.
“Throughout this season it's been whoever shows up comes out on top, so I think it goes the same way in the playoffs,” Pelletier said. “If we move on and play them in the semifinals, we're going to come out hungry as the underdogs and want to put up a good fight and hopefully come out on top.”
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