By David F. Pendrys
The Boston Blades continue to rise out of the ashes of the events of 2015 in their bid to become a force again in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. This will be the first in a series of check-ins to how the Boston Blades of the CWHL are doing this year as the rebuilding continues for this fascinating squad.. As a brief introduction, the Blades have had a turbulent history the past few years. After the NWHL popped into existence, the core of their 2015 Clarkson Cup Championship team jumped to the higher paying league’s various franchises. The two General Managers that inherited the team, Krista Patronick for two years, and now Jessica Martino, have had to rebuild the team in an environment where the CWHL only added paid salaries for the current season.
In the 15-16, Patronick was able to keep a small core of players together to build around. The excellent netminder Geneviève Lacasse and the renowned defender and Captain Tara Watchorn were the leaders, with Megan Myers, Erin Kickham, Nicole Giannino, Dru Burns and Kristina Brown also on hand. The season was a rough one. The Blades were outmatched against the best Canada had to offer. Lacasse and Watchorn put out a lot of fires but it was difficult for the Blades to get much going in that first year. Nonetheless they played hard but came away with a very unfortunate record.
Lacasse would depart a year later to Calgary as the way the CWHL is structured, players often need to go where their life takes them career-wise or otherwise. Watchorn would remain, and a new goaltender, Lauren Dahm, would rise to fill the void left in net, quickly.
Patronick would add other key players including Meghan Grieves, Chelsey Goldberg, Melissa Bizzari, Kate Leary, and Sato Kikuchi (who at the time played on a pairing with Nachi Fujimoto). Kayla Tutino and Dakota Woodworth were two more key additions, but they would depart to different teams in the following season. The Blades of 16-17 showed marked improvement, hanging in games with the other four strong CWHL teams. The result would be a 2-20-1-0-1 record, but also much more competitive play. Dahm would make 732 saves and post a .882 save percentage despite being pelted with shots often. She would hold steady to give Boston a chance in many of the contests. The new look Blades also were able to generate more offensive chances compared to the year before.
In year three, with the Canadian National Team players not available as they prepared for the Olympics, the CWHL added another twist with the two Chinese teams being introduced and with it the ability of those teams to bring on hockey ambassadors. Even in a year in which the CWHL had added salaries to the mix, the China squads had the ability to pay more. It is unknown whether the Blades could have landed any of the players who were drafted by Kunlun and Vanke, but it is at least possible the Blades might have added a player or two from that pool. Regardless, the Blades now had to face off against six teams with solid rosters as opposed to four the year before. Nonetheless Martino kept building.
Dahm returned to instantly solidify goaltending, along with Jetta Rackleff and Amanda Carridi who were previous backups. Watchorn departed to become an Assistant Coach at BU, leaving a hole in defense, but Brown, Burns and Kikuchi remained augmented by Erin Hall, Taryn Harris, Meghan Spurling, Kelly Kittredge and Jordan Hampton.
At Forward, Kickham, Leary, Myers, Grieves, Chelsey Goldberg, Bizzari, and Giannino were bolstered by Michelle Ng, Courtney Turner, Taylor Wasylk, Kaitlin Spurling, Casey Stathopoulos, Elizabeth Aveson, and more. This really took the growing offensive corps from the year before and added even more weapons.
The Blades would go winless in the 2017 part of the season but had two shootout losses, one to the Vanke Rays and one to the Markham Thunder. Boston also played Kunlun Red Star, the Calgary Inferno, and Markham again close in other contests. The Blades would only score 3 goals once in that period, against Les Canadiennes de Montreal, no less.
At this point in the February of the season, Leary leads the team with 6 goals and 7 assists for 13 points total. Grieves has 4 goals, and 7 assists, Bizzari, 3 goals and 7 assists as well. Ng had 4 goals, 9 points, with Myers, Turner, Goldberg, and Wasylk putting in 3 goals as well. Wasylk, a recent addition has gotten to 3 goals in only 9 games and could be a breakout star for the team.
Dahm has made 752 saves so far with a Goals Against Average of 3.88 and a save percentage of .908. The stats don’t tell the whole story as she clearly keeps the Blades in some of their tougher games.
“We feel super-confident having Dahm back there,” Bizzari said after a recent series. “The leadership comes from the back. You’ll hear her a couple times throughout the shifts. We had a long one. I just heard her yell my name, and I got a little fire in my step, and try to grind it out for her, because she keeps us in a lot of games and we appreciate it.”
Recently, the Blades picked up their first win of the season versus the Toronto Furies, playing the White and Blue very hard during an early January home stand. In a 4-2 victory the Blades got goals from Grieves and Ng in the first, matched by Toronto, but Wasylk got the eventual game winner in the second and Leary added the insurance goal in the third. The Blades put 43 shots on Toronto’s net, which was an astounding display. Dahm made 37 saves on the 39 shots the Furies sent at her.
The Furies would rebound in game 2 the next day, though it was Myers who struck first. In fact the Blades held a 1-0 lead into halfway through the third before Emily Fulton and Caroline Prevost each scored to get Toronto the win. Dahm still made 37 saves on the day, fending off a lot of Furies attempt. (For more details on the Furies series check out the detailed recaps on the Blades site: Game 1 Game 2)
At the time Bizzari and Dahm were able to assess the team’s growth.
“The team did really well forechecking, and playing tough in the D-zone….we have definitely found our identity this weekend, and moving forward in 2018,” Bizzari said. “I think we’re getting competitive. People want to play, people want to win. Four goals [in the win] really shows we are trying to find the back of the net, and put ourselves in a good position to compete.”
“I think we still saw a lot of good things out of our team,” Dahm said at the time. “We played some great hockey this weekend. The best two games that we put together in a very long time. Despite the scoreboard it definitely was a positive for our team.”
The Blades netminder after the Furies series put the season in context at that point seeing many good results. “We’ve definitely matured as a team, and learned how to play together. I think despite our record before this weekend, we have been playing some good hockey. A couple bounces here or there and I think our record is very much different then what it was.”
The two team leaders also saw early in January what the team still had to work on going into a break before five games in seven days versus two of the CWHL’s best teams.
Bizzari said the team needed to work on “…bringing some consistency to the table. We’re trying to figure out how to win, and playing to win is a definitely a skill that has to be learned, and we’re going to work on that.”
Dahm saw a positive trajectory with the improvements noting it “…always is a challenge playing a full sixty minutes, or more if we have to. There’s bound to be lapses throughout the 60 minutes, but minimizing those, and taking advantage of the other team’s lapses on the other end, putting in a couple goals a game would be huge for us, but I think just still focusing on playing together, doing the little things, being disciplined…hard work could make up for any other thing’s our team might lacking. If we play together, there’s no ceiling for us.”
With those goals in mind after a two week break from games the Blades welcomed in Kunlun Red Star to the home rink in Winthrop for a three game series. Despite taking the loss in all three games, Boston gave KRS some tough opposition. Red Star includes CWHL leading scorer Kelli Stack, the elite Alex Carpenter, legendary goalie Noora Raty and several other high level players imported to China who have made KRS really lethal offensively. Nonetheless, Boston did play KRS to two 4-2 losses, although the Sunday 6-0 loss was especially difficult. Burns had 2 goals during the series, and Wasylk and Leary had the other 2 Boston goals.
Only days later, the league leading Les Canadiennes de Montreal arrived. Despite so many Canadian players being with the national team for the Olympics, Les Canadiennes was still loaded with talent including Caroline Ouelette who was in search of the all time CWHL goal scoring record.
Boston responded by battling Les Candiennes to a 4-4 tie through regulation and overtime in a fantastic contest. The game would end in a shootout when Montreal would get the upper hand for the 5-4 overtime win, but the Blades ability to play Montreal that hard was a true achievement. Bizzari had 2 goals in the first to give Boston a rare 2 goal lead. Montreal responded as Ann-Sophie Bettez, one of the league’s best, scored on a power play, but Leary scored one back to keep the lead. Sarah Lefort scored another for Montreal, but Boston held the lead entering period 3. Lefort again struck to tie it only to have Wasylk gain the advantage right back, but Lefort capped off a hat trick to tie it back up. She would also have the deciding goal in the shootout. Still, this was a big game for the Blades, they responded well to the pressure and nearly pulled out a grand upset. The next day Montreal would shut out the Blades 6-0, but the signs of improvement were clearly there. (The Blades also recapped this series in detail. Game 1 Game 2)
Bizzari noted several results from the stretch against Kunlun & Montreal:
“It was a long stretch having 5 games in 7 days,” Bizzari said. “But I thought the team did a really good job powering through. I think the team has developed a competitive edge. We have had many close games, but haven’t stopped competing even though we aren’t getting the results we are looking for. In the past we have struggled keeping an emotional balance. Getting too high when we are up and bouncing back when we are down.”
The Blades Co-Captain singled out the first Montreal game especially as a good sign.
“I think the back and forth game that resulted in a shoot out against Montreal was a great test for our team. We showed up and competed for 65 minutes. The team is definitely looking to carry that competitive edge moving forward into some big games at the end of the season.”
The Blades (1-18-0-0-3) are off for the Olympic break but will resume play in Calgary versus the Inferno on February 24th. It will be interesting to see where the team’s fortunes go from here.