Surprising? No, that’s not quite the word for it, explains McKenna Brand. To call it surprising would be to suggest she couldn’t have seen this coming, couldn’t have expected the start to the season that the Boston Pride have had. And, oh, what a start it has been. Through nine games, the Pride’s record is without blemish. Their 8-0 trouncing of the Connecticut Whale last weekend marked Boston’s ninth consecutive victory, raised the Pride’s league-leading goal total to 50, held their league-best goals against total at 14 and pushed their eye-popping goal differential to a plus-36, which in and of itself is deserving of a double-take and a triple-check.
So, again, none of this is surprising?
“Honestly, not really,” Brand said. “I think right away at our first practice we looked out and realized we've got a really talented group that is not only talented but works really, really hard, too. That's the biggest difference for us: our compete level and how we make each other better at every practice.”
Brand can most certainly speak to what has made the Pride so remarkably successful through the early part of the 2019-20 NWHL campaign, too. Through nine games, which constitutes a hair more than one-third of the season, she has inarguably been the league’s most lethal sniper. Her 10 goals are tops in the league and her 17 points put her two clear of any other Boston skater and four ahead of the next-best non-Pride player. But it’s not Brand and Brand alone who is driving the attack or the team’s triumphs.
“I think from a coach's standpoint, you look at the returning players that have come back,” said Pride coach Paul Mara. “Our captain, Jillian Dempsey, and McKenna Brand, they've really stepped up and played extremely well. And our back end there with Kaleigh Fratkin and Mallory Souliotis. Those four players returning this year, we signed those four within the first month of free agency, and the way they've come in and been leaders on the team on and off the ice has been a great example to our younger players.”
Among those younger players and NWHL rookies, few – possibly none – have been as impactful as netminder Lovisa Selander. Recently selected to the Swedish national team, the rookie keeper hasn’t missed a beat in her transition from the college ranks to the professional game. In her eight appearances, Selander has posted an outstanding .949 save percentage and 1.76 goals-against average, prompting Mara to say that she has been better than advertised and Dempsey to trumpet the confidence elite goaltending provides the Pride. It’s Selander’s goaltending, Dempsey added, that has allowed the Pride to be more freewheeling offensively than they may have otherwise been able.
“She has this calming presence,” Dempsey said. “I don't know how to describe it, but she's so relaxed and so poised and that effect on the team gives us even more faith in her, as well. She's relaxed and goes out there and does her job and does it really well. That's been something that has been instrumental to our success.”
Make no mistake, the Pride are indeed pleased with the early season results. But don’t confuse that with satisfaction. Despite nine consecutive wins, four of which have been by five or more goals, Boston still sees room for improvement. Brand indicates the power play, while clicking, can’t let opportunities slip away and can be better than it has been, especially with the level of offensive talent the Pride possess. Dempsey echoes that, but adds that making good on the chances that present themselves throughout games needs to be a focus moving forward. And all three – Brand, Dempsey and Mara – agree that the one thing Boston has yet to do this season is produce a full 60-minute effort.
“We definitely have spurts where it feels dominant and it's great and we're getting that offensive-zone pressure and opportunities. We're really hemming them in there,” Dempsey said. “But then we have spurts where we let off the gas a little bit and we give opportunities (for the opposition) to maybe get a chance to get back into the game. We cannot be giving those kinds of opportunities.”
It’s not just the five- or 10-minute let downs through certain periods of play that are the concern, however. Rather, it’s that those short periods where the Pride aren’t at their best could open the team up to a lackadaisical outing at some point this season. And that’s the last thing Mara wants to see and something he and assistant Heath Gordon have talked about at length with the players during practice.
“We're trying to instill in them that we can't take our foot off the gas in any part of the game or any part of the season,” Mara said. “Each win, each game, is integral to the standings at the end and the small portion that is each game, we need to focus on getting better every 10 minutes, every segment of every game, to keep improving and pushing that needle forward.”
That’s particularly true given the NWHL’s one-game, winner-take-all playoff format, and Dempsey is familiar with the way in which one lapse can send a promising season down the drain. She was a member of the 2016-17 Pride team that lost one game all regular season – to the Metropolitan Riveters, who happen to be Boston’s opponent this coming Saturday – and entered the post-season as prohibitive favorites only to fall to the Buffalo Beauts in the Isobel Cup final.
“It's not like the Stanley Cup playoffs where you get to play seven games. It's one game and done, and that can go either way in the playoffs,” Brand said. “That's definitely something that the older girls preach. 'Hey, we can go 24-0 this year, but we're still going to have to show up in the playoffs.' It's continuing to (develop) good habits throughout the year and get better instead of getting worse. Like coach says all the time, every single team is getting better, so we need to get better, too.”
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