By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A team from New England beat a team from Buffalo this weekend.
No, it didn’t happen in football. It took place in women’s hockey. Twice.
Just like in football, that’s no disgrace. The Boston Pride has been beating everyone this season in the National Women’s Hockey League.
The Pride improved to 13-0-0 with a 4-2 win over the Buffalo Beauts at the Northtown Center in Amherst on Sunday afternoon. It came less than 24 hours after Boston won a 4-3 overtime decision over the Beauts (6-5-1). That’s as close as anyone has come to beating the Pride this season.
“Buffalo is a good, strong team,” Boston coach Paul Mara said. “Any time you come up here and get two wins in Buffalo is a great job. It’s a hard place to play, it’s a hard trip. To come up here and get four points is great for us.”
That’s certainly true from the Pride’s perspective. But it certainly points out a problem for the NWHL as it continues to go through growing pains of establishing the sport of women’s pro hockey. There are five teams in the league this season. Boston is unbeaten, Connecticut is winless, and the other three teams are in between. That means the result almost seems predetermined before the first puck is dropped in a large percentage of the league’s games. A little more parity would be nice.
Beauts coach Pete Perran knows what the standings say, and realizes it’s not an ideal situation. He thinks the records are deceptive in one sense.
“I’m going to give Connecticut a little bit of credit here,” he said. “I think they are one or two players away. It’s a depth problem. It’s not a skill problem – they have tons of skill and talent. Some depth is just missing. A couple of bodies changes that dynamic. I think they are closer than the stats would show.”
A loaded roster
Meanwhile, there is no deception at the top of the league. It takes only a period to know that the Pride is loaded with skill this season, relatively speaking.
“Paul really has this team clicking,” Perran said. “One of the things they do that frustrates teams is that they stretch their players. The stretch pass was killing us the first three games. We implemented a strategy to not let them get behind us. That’s where their strength is. Their speed and skill can be deadly when they get odd-man breaks.”
Coaching an unbeaten team isn’t as easy as it sounds. It comes with some unique challenges. The won-loss record isn’t a measuring stick for success, like it usually is. Try telling players that they need to improve on perfection.
“We don’t want to get complacent in any game, any practice,” Mara said. “We’re trying to keep improving every day. We know that every other team is going to get better. We have to continue to do that. The playoff system in this league is one game (per round), so anything can happen. We need to peak in the right time in March.”
Then there’s the matter of keeping all of the players motivated. So far, that hasn’t been a problem for the Pride.
“That’s one thing with our team. We have great leadership in the locker room,” Mara said. “We’re not being stagnant. We are working hard every night. But it is a challenge at times. When you win games by 8-1 or 7-1, and then you have a game like Saturday night – a close, physical game – you need a big heart.”
Tough to bounce back
On Saturday, Buffalo had a 3-1 lead on Boston, only to let it slip away. It took plenty of emotion for the Beauts to play like that, and it’s tough to repeat that against a team that might have been happy to have a little extra motivation for a change.
“In the league structure, we play back-to-back games which can be a little bit challenging when we execute like we did on Saturday,” Perran said. “We had all players going. Energy was high. To play that kind of game, to attack and neutralize Boston, and to play at that level of intensity, it’s hard coming back from that. I told the team at the beginning, it’s a half-full , half-empty thing. It’s not an overtime loss, it’s a one-point tie that puts us a step up on the rest of the teams in this league.”
If the Beauts achieved anything over the weekend, it was the realization that they could stay close to the league’s best team. – one with a 71-24 edge in goal differential for the season. It’s the sort of fact that should be tucked away and used when needed.
“They have to have a mental belief that they can beat this team now,” Perran said. “Boston believes they can be beat by us. That changes the dynamic between us. I don’t think it changes it for the other teams, because the Pride has a certain cache, but we showed them that there is another team in the building when they are up against us.”
That next meeting will have to wait until Jan. 4 and 5. In the meantime, there’s a big event for the Beauts coming up. Next weekend they will play the Metropolitan Riveters on Saturday night at Riverworks in a special outdoor game. It’s the first NWHL game to be played outside.
Perran, a coach known for his snappy hats behind the bench, says he’ll be ready to make a fashion statement that night.
“We’re going to be stylin.’ We’re going to look good,” he said with a laugh.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)