By Budd Bailey
As the Buffalo Beauts’ season crawls toward its disappointing outcome, you can almost hear the clock ticking.
The Beauts fell to the Connecticut Whale 4-2 Sunday afternoon in the Northtown Center. That’s the third straight loss for Buffalo, and it came in the team’s final home game of the season.
Realistically, though, the season has been over for a long time. The Beauts opened the 2022-23 campaign with three straight losses, won a game, and then dropped 10 in a row. It’s rather difficult to recover from that in a 24-game season. Events have turned the final two months of the season into something of a test of endurance and will.
“We just keep playing,” said Mikyla Grant-Mentis, voted the Beauts’ MVP this season by her teammates. “There’s nothing else we can do now.”
At least the Beauts showed no signs of quitting over the weekend. They pushed the Whale into overtime before losing on Saturday night, and played Connecticut hard on Sunday before falling. The team’s record is 5-14-3. Considering the Whale is one of the four teams in the seven-team league that will go to the playoffs, the weekend served as something of a metaphor for the season.
“We have the talent to take it to them,” coach Rhea Coad said. “It comes down to playing 60 minutes, from everyone. It seems like when the D is on, the forwards are off. When the forwards are on, the D is off. The games we’ve won, the entire roster is going. That’s what it comes down to.”
On Sunday the Beauts and Whale played a scoreless first period, but Claudia Kepler’s goal at 0:19 of the second period put Buffalo ahead. Connecticut answered with tallies by Bori Howran and Kennedy Marchment to take a 2-1 lead after two periods.
Then came the symbolic part. Summer-Rae Dobson of the Beauts threw the puck on goal from the net, and somehow it ended up on the other side of the goal line. It was exactly the type of break that Buffalo needed at that point in the game. But the good feelings lasted only 31 seconds. Caitrin Lonergan and Allie Munroe worked a two-on-one rush perfect, with Lonergan putting in the go-ahead goal. Emma Keenan added some insurance 80 seconds later, and Connecticut never looked backwards. It’s been that sort of year.
There’s been something missing all season, and it’s tough to point a finger at the reason why.
“We turn off sometimes, and teams capitalize on that,” Grant-Mentis said. “It will take time.”
After the game, it was a good time for a little reflection. The Beauts and Minnesota Whitecaps have been owned by NLTT Ventures since June, 2021. That’s a company that represents the combined effort of NL Sports and Top Tier Spots. Last season, Buffalo went 6-14 to finish last in the six-team league and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. This time it will take a productive performance next week against the Metropolitan Riveters to avoid another finish in the bottom.
That’s probably not going to be considered acceptable by most ownership groups. When that happens, the first thing that happens is that the coach gets fired. And if that’s not enough and a more thorough housecleaning is in order, the general manager departs too. That means it might be a nervous offseason for coach Rhea Coad and general manager Nate Oliver. It’s tough to know from a distance what is going on with the team internally, but a couple of basement finishes usually is enough to turn a slight tremor into something of an earthquake.
Naturally, there will be changes in personnel by the time next season rolls around. It comes with professional status, especially when the losses pile up. Such moves don’t sound as if they will be welcome on a personal level though.
“All of the girls on the team are amazing,” Grant-Mentis said. “We’ve definitely developed a big bond this year. We’ve been through ups and downs. It’s been a tough year, but we’ve all stuck together.”
“We have a core in there that we think knows what being a Beaut really means,” Coad said. “I do think that if we add a few more puzzle pieces, we have the recipe in the locker room.”
What’s more, women’s pro hockey always has gone through changes from year to year, and there’s no reason to think this will be different. The league’s salary cap probably will go up next season, and it’s an easy guess that the number of games will go up with it. And from the Beauts’ standpoint, a few more home games later in the season would be nice. Buffalo’s last home game before this weekend came on January 22 – which is when the Bills lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs. That seems like an eternity ago.
“Every year I’ve been in this league, it’s changed dramatically – whether it’s the level of play, the resources,” Coad said. “I’m assuming there will be a lot of changes again. It’s good for women’s hockey. You want to evolve.”
It’s been a season to forget at Fort Beaut. The offseason figures to be a bit more lively.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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