NEWARK, N.J. – A night after Hilary Knight, arguably the world’s best women’s hockey player, stole the show in Game 1 of the NWHL’s inaugural Isobel Cup Finals with two goals, including the gamewinner in OT, it was her U.S. Olympic and Boston Pride teammate, Brianna Decker, who shined in Game 2. Decker scored the opening two goals in the Pride’s 3–1 victory over the Buffalo Beauts to clinch the best-of-three series and claim the first Isobel Cup.
Despite an outstanding effort from Buffalo goalie Brianne McLaughlin to survive the wave after wave of Boston attack, Decker put the Pride on the board when she went top corner on a breakaway, 11:55 into the first period. Buffalo appeared to tie things up midway through the second as a puck slid underneath Pride goalie Brittany Ott, but the referee blew the whistle before the puck crossed the line, waving off the goal. Decker then doubled the lead at 9:25 of the third with a shorthanded goal on a nice pass from Knight after Knight’s breakaway was stopped seconds earlier. Buffalo looked to have cut the lead in half a minute later, but the goal was immediately waved off due to a high stick. Knight later made the Beauts pay on the ensuing shift when she scored on a backhander over McLaughlin.
Buffalo’s Erin Zach finally scored with 37 seconds left, but it was too little, too late for the Beauts.
Here are three thoughts on Boston’s championship win:
Boston finishes historic first season as the undisputed best team
There can be no question now that Boston was the best team in the NWHL’s premiere season. Once the Pride signed multiple Olympians in the preseason, they assumed the role of team to beat, at least on paper. But it proved to be more than just talk, as they were able to live up to the hype and prove why they were the best team throughout the entire season. Boston finished the regular season with the league’s best record at 14-3-1 and then swept the New York Riveters in the semifinals.
“Getting your name engraved on the Cup is something that’s always going to be there and no one can take that away from us,” Knight said. “It’s a dream come true and we just made history, what a phenomenal job from this team all year.”
Against the Beauts, Boston won five of the six regular-season matchups, with its only loss coming in overtime on Jan. 3, before taking the most important two games from them in the Finals.
In addition to great scoring from Knight (15 goals, 18 assists) and Decker (14 goals, 15 assists), the Pride also had great goaltending from Ott, who led the NWHL in shutouts, goals-against-average (1.94) and 13 wins during the regular season.
Now the question becomes if this is the beginning of a dynasty.
Assuming the rosters remain the same, or close to it, next year, Boston will no doubt be the frontrunners again. Knight showed all during the regular season, and again in the Isobel Cup Finals, that her size, speed and stick-handling put her on a different level than the rest of the league. Combined with a player like Decker, and the Pride could build a dynasty around two of the league’s elite players.
On two teams full of scorers, it was the goaltenders who stole the show
After the teams combined for seven goals in Game 1 Friday night, it was the women in net, McLaughlin and Ott, who ruled the ice on Saturday.
“It just added energy, not pressure [to not let in a goal],” Ott said. “The team was firing on all cylinders, so I wanted to stop that extra puck and control the game for them if you can, we kind of piggy-back off each other that way.”
“Bri [McLaughlin] is a great goalie so you’ve got to play her honestly,” Knight said. “She stops pucks, she keeps you from putting them in the back of the net so hats off to her for an unbelievable performance.”
Until late in the third period when three goals were scored in the final nine minutes, much of the game was a goaltenders duel, as both came up with several amazing saves. Ott held the Beauts’ big guns at bay, consistently denying efforts from Megan Bozek, Meghan Duggan and Emily Pfalzer, while McLaughlin did her best impression of a brick wall in shutting down several great opportunities by the Pride.
McLaughlin, the backbone of Buffalo’s run to the Finals, made perhaps the biggest save of the night early in the third period, sliding across the crease to rob Knight all alone in front to keep it a 1-0 game.
“Obviously we’ve seen her a lot, but she’s a great goaltender, you’ve just got to keep peppering her and you’ll get things by, and we did that,” Decker said.
It was a successful first season for the NWHL, and this is just the beginning
Entering the season, there were questions about whether the league would be a sustainable business model. But NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan said before Saturday’s game that the league will “definitely” be back for a second season next year, and that she also plans on having a longer season and more games. There was also a question of growing the league to other markets such as Minnesota, but Rylan said at this time, there’s nothing more to announce, though the end of the league’s game stream might have revealed some bigger plans–or did they?
If the Finals is anything to go off, a longer season could be great news for lots of people, as fans packed inside the New Jersey Devils’ practice arena to witness both games in the series. The excitement and energy with seeing the historic event overflowed throughout the weekend. A longer season will mean more opportunities for fans to see these great athletes, and as the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics draw closer, more exposure could mean even more growth for the sport and league.
“The more hockey, the better, right?” Decker said. “I think if we can play more games in a weekend, maybe a weekday game, that would be awesome.”
Knight agreed with her teammate.
“I think the fans want to see more games and the players want to play more games, so it’s a win-win for everyone,” she said.