In a game that held special meaning for fans and players alike, the Buffalo Beauts hosted Military Appreciation Day at Harbor Center. Of note, it signified the second consecutive weekend that a Military Appreciation Event was hosted by an NWHL club, with the New York Riveters hosting the first.
The Beauts event was held in conjunction with Defending the Blue Line (DTBL), an organization dedicated to ensuring that hockey resources are made available for children of military members. Not only did the Beauts host 50 members of the United States Armed Forces, along with respective family, a 50/50 draw took place, with half the proceeds going to DTBL. In addition, Tickets for military personnel were sold at half price, while all Purple Heart recipients were granted free admission.
No one could anticipate the outcome to follow as the Beauts and the visiting Connecticut Whale participated in the first shootout in NWHL history, while Emily Pfalzer became the first player in Beauts franchise history to record five points in one game.
From the outset, the Niagara Falls Airbase color guard graced the ice during the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, followed by SGM Jason Jaskula participating in the ceremonial puck drop. Adding to the show of support of the brave men and women of the Armed Forces, the Beauts donned special edition camouflage jerseys. Said jerseys were available for auction after the game, with DTBL as the beneficiaries of the proceeds.
Searching for their first win in franchise history, the first period did not turn out in the Beauts favor. Sam Faber, an inaugural member of the CWHL’s Boston Blades, scored her first NWHL goal with 13:02 remaining. Her milestone goal would be scored against Brianne McLaughlin, a two-time Winter Games silver medalist.
In a span of less than four minutes, the Whale would capitalize on power play opportunities, establishing a four goal lead. This was partly attributed to Buffalo’s Megan Bozek called for slashing, a five-minute major, which saw her ejected from the game. With 11:10 remaining in the first, Kaleigh Fratkin, the first Canadian-born player signed to an NWHL contract took advantage, with Jordan Brickner and Jessica Koizumi earning the assists.
Fratkin would follow it up just 61 seconds later with her second straight power play goal. Kelly Babstock scored with 7:37 remaining as Fratkin earned her third consecutive point with an assist.
Undeterred, Buffalo would fight back, despite being shorthanded. 44 seconds after Babstock’s goal, Kelley Steadman breathed new life back into a dejected Buffalo squad, trimming the Whale lead. Pfalzer and Kelly Mcdonald would log the assists as Buffalo had already served three penalties by that time.
Before the period would expire, Paige Harrington was called for hitting from behind, giving Buffalo another penalty.
Once again, the Whale capitalized, as Koizumi scored on McLaughlin with just two minutes remaining in a frustrating period for the Beauts. Taking into account that the Whale were not called for one penalty in said period, the 5-1 advantage did not come across as surprising. Of surprise though, was the fact that the Beauts outshot the Whale by a 13-10 margin.
Heading into the second period, another six goals were scored, already resulting in the highest scoring game of the NWHL’s young season. Instead of the Whale scoring five goals, like they did in the first, it was the Beauts that would reciprocate.
Before the Beauts’ five goal outburst, the Whale would score again, as Shannon Doyle assisted on a goal by Jordan Brickner, making a comeback appear impossible. Adding to the Beauts woes was the fact that Brianne McLaughlin was pulled in favor of Amanda Makela, making her NWHL debut under such strenuous circumstances.
Kourtney Kunichika, familiar to Western New York hockey fans for her heroics with the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers started things for the Beauts, with the Beauts second goal of the game with 14:48 remaining in the second stanza. As a side note, Meghan Duggan and Emily Pfalzer logged the assists.
Despite over seven minutes of scoreless play, the Beauts were able to mount a comeback via the power play. With Danielle Ward serving a pair of penalties (roughing, interference), the result were goals by Kelley Steadman and Kunichika in a span of 90 seconds. Just 17 seconds following Kunichika’s second goal, the first multi-goal game of her NWHL career, Meghan Duggan (also the captain for Team USA) scored, as the fans at Harbor Center roared in approval.
With the Whale’s lead reduced to just one goal, goaltender Nicole Stock was replaced by Jaimie Leonoff, who won the first game in NWHL history. Hayley Williams would make some of her own history as she logged her first career NWHL goal with 3:23 remaining, as Emily Pfalzer registered her fifth assist of the game, a franchise record. As the second period came to a close, a stunned Whale squad were faced with a 6-6 tie, while a jubilant Beauts roster was injected with remarkable confidence, seeing its first win possibly within reach.
Fatigue set in as the third period progressed, with both sides only managing five shots each. As the third period and subsequent overtime could not resolve the 6-6 tie, a shootout was necessary, the first in NWHL history. Going first was the Whale’s Kelly Babstock and she would not miss, providing the Whale with an early 1-0 advantage.
Considering that Babstock was also the first Canadian to score a goal in regular season play, it is fitting that she makes history twice by scoring the NWHL’s first-ever shootout goal.
Kunichika would become the first Beauts player to participate in a shootout, unable to slip the puck past Jaimie Leonoff. Having both skated for the US national team; Shiann Darkangelo and Kelley Steadman were unable to score for their respective teams, as the score was still 1-0 in favor of the Whale.
Among the NWHL’s scoring leaders, franchise player Kelli Stack attempted to put the game away for the Whale. Instead, she was denied by Makela, who allowed the Beauts one more try to tie and force a fourth shooter. Tatiana Rafter, one of the all-time leading scorers with the University of British Columbia, soared down the ice with a fierce focus, but her aspirations of extending the shootout were denied by Leonoff, whose poise between the pipes enabled the Whale to remain the only undefeated team in NWHL play.
While the Whale managed to escape with a very tense 7-6 shootout win, the first game determined via shootout in NWHL history, the Beauts have seen their confidence strengthen, firm in the belief that their first win shall soon follow. Pflalzer, whose five-assist performance also set a record for most points in an NWHL regular season game by a blueliner was recognized as the game’s First Star. Kelley Steadman, who sits atop the league leader in goals gained the Second Star with her solid two-goal performance. Also scoring twice was Kunichika, earning third star recognition on a milestone-filled day.