Boston Pride made big strides from first Isobel Cup to 2021

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Michelle Jay
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To win a championship five years apart means there is going to be a lot of turnover. The Boston Pride know how that feels more than most.

From year one of the National Women’s Hockey League, where the Pride took the first ever Isobel Cup, to their 2021 edition, just one player remains from the original roster in captain Jillian Dempsey.

That’s a heck of a change, especially considering the first Isobel Cup — a win over Buffalo, which appeared in every title game until 2020 — included Olympians like Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.

The Pride have been through three coaches since then and plenty of changes. Current head coach Paul Mara has seen what the organization has gone through first hand.

“In the last two years, we’ve built a winning culture on and off the ice,” said Mara, who is one of just two NWHL coaches with at least 30 career wins. “We want strong character people in the locker room and now we’re trying to build on that. The best teams off the ice always carry onto the ice.”

That isn’t to say there’s no veteran presence behind what the Pride have built. Kaleigh Fratkin was one of six original NWHL players to suit up in the league’s sixth season, but began her career with Connecticut and Metropolitan before signing with the Pride.

She won her first Isobel Cup with this year’s Pride team.

“She’s been the heart and soul of the team and the defense the past three years,” said Mara. “The hard work she’s put in all six years (in the league), it’s so rewarding and so well deserved.”

Fratkin plays alongside Mallory Souliotis and Lauren Kelly, who completed their third seasons in the league, all with Boston. They’ve been leaders for the culture shift, along with third-year scorer McKenna Brand and second year winger Christina Putigna.

Season-by-season growth

The Pride went 11-5-0 in 2018-19 and lost in shutout fashion to Buffalo in the semi-finals. That was Mara’s first year with the team, and he inherited a group of part holdovers from the original title team, part players who were making a pitstop in Boston, and part the future core of the team.

That’s the group that brought the most recent title to Boston.

The Pride were coming off the worst season in franchise history when they went 4-8-4 and still managed to take Buffalo to overtime in the semi-final the year before Mara came to Boston.

There was a turn in 2019-20. The Pride went on a historic run, losing a single game all season before they would have faced Minnesota at home for the Isobel Cup if not for Covid. That run included many of the players who were a part of the 11-5-0 season the year prior, like Brand and Kelly and Souliotis, but there was something different, something that group cited all year about everyone wanting to be there.

It showed, and that effort didn’t get rewarded quit yet with the pause. At the start of season six, in one location at Lake Placid, something was missing.

The Pride brought in eight rookies, and before they got their feet under them, it didn’t look at all like the dominance of the season prior.

“The first three or four games were definitely a learning curve,” said Mara. “They stepped up and performed extremely well. The caliber of this league is so strong, it took them a few games. People don’t realize that.”

Once they got their feet under them — Tereza Vanisova scored the opening goal in the semi-final win over Toronto, and Taylor Wenczkowski what ended up being the game winner over Minnesota — it looked strikingly familiar to the team that seemed all but destined the year before.

What was different from the team’s third season, and even fourth, into years five and six has been universally credited to, among the talent they’ve accumulated, a culture that changed from the time Mara took over, and Dempsey and Fratkin’s leadership and buy in.

“From when I joined the team in season three, and Paul joining us on board in season four, we’ve been really building a culture and winning organization,” said Fratkin after the Pride won the Isobel Cup. “It’s been awesome to be alongside Jill and Mary Parker and some of the other players who have been around for a while.”

After Dempsey, Parker is the next longest tenured player on the Pride, signing out of Boston University at the tail end of the 2016-17 season. She’s been with them through all the ups and downs, and she left the Lake Placid season before it was postponed out of safety concerns.

She was on the ice when the Pride won the Cup at home two months later.

Young players step up

Aside from veteran players, rookies and second-year players have emerged as leaders as well. Goalie Lovisa Selander was in just her second season, taking over from 2018-19’s rookie of the year Katie Burt, who left for the PWHPA. She won a Cup in her second year.

Jenna Rheaut, a second year defender, broke her wrist in Lake Placid but was able to raise the Cup on home ice, alongside her veteran blueliner teammates, where she’s taken on a leadership role early in her career.

How the Pride went from a dominant, Olympic-sized roster of stardom, into a few years of finding an identity, to the clear cut best team in the league all over again under Mara, and general manager Karilyn Pilch, doesn’t happen over night.

In perhaps the most difficult road to becoming a champion the league has ever seen, from 16 Pride players contracting Covid after questionable league policies and enforcement leading to the postponement at all, the Pride ended up with a title that could have happened a year ago.

This time though, they can say they won it for real, entirely differently than how they did the first time.

“I think it took us a while to find out identity and we had high expectations,” said Dempsey. “When we went into Lake Placid we were tested right away…. We were able to bounce back. I’m so proud of every single person on this team and in the entire organization.”

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Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.