As the National Women's Hockey League-champion Buffalo Beauts hoisted the Isobel Cup in March, it came as a shock to everyone, except perhaps the team itself.
"Hard working," "grinders" and "determined" might be ways to characterize the Beauts year in and year out, but now they have "defending champion" to add to that list of descriptions for the NWHL club, which opens regular-season play on Saturday at the Connecticut Whale.
"We've always been built on hard work," said Buffalo co-head coach Ric Seiling. "Buffalo has had that never-say-die slogan for two years now. It's just always worked that way here."
When the March rolls around again, the Beauts are hoping to hoist the Isobel Cup once more, but the path will be tough. Every team is facing challenges this year, with roster turnover and the lack of U.S. national teams players who are preparing for the 2018 Olympics, but Buffalo might have the newest looking team of all.
Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer are with the U.S. national team. Defender Paige Harrington signed with Boston. Shiann Darkangelo and Emily Janiga signed with Chinese teams in the CWHL. And Kelley Steadman retired.
One of the biggest losses might be Isobel Cup MVP Brianne McLaughlin, the goaltender who retired after a stunning 53-save performance to topple the Boston Pride in the title game. But Seiling says not to worry.
"We've still got Amanda Leveille," Seiling said. "If she didn't play the way she did in New York, we don't even get to Boston. We had two goalies who got us there. Bri was the best goalie in the playoffs, and I was glad she got that recognition. But we had two who got us there."
Even with the player losses, the Beauts somehow might have gotten better. And for a roster of players who have barely played together, there's plenty of pockets of chemistry.
Enter Jess Jones, one of the stars of the Canadian Women's Hockey League who made the leap to the NWHL from the Brampton Thunder.
Jones is expected to play on a line with Corrine Buie and Rebecca Vint, a former Thunder teammate of Jones. Sarah Edney, another ex-Brampton teammate of Vint and Jones, is a top-notch puck-moving defender who can help fill the hole left by Harrington's departure.
The chemistry has been apparent in early practices and preseason games, and it hasn't surprised the coaching staff, despite seeing the team together in limited time.
"We look at chemistry when we sign players," Seiling said. "We have conversations with them to see if they'll fit in easier. When we find someone without that ability to be a part of it, we pass on them. Not surprised at all this group has come together so quickly."
After struggling to score at times last season, there's reason to believe the Beauts might have no issue finding the back of the net this year, from the top line down.
One of those lines will include the trio of Kristin Lewicki, Kaylyn Schroka and Sarah Shureb, who played together at Adrian (Michigan) College last season. Lewicki and Shureb already impressed in a preseason game against the Buffalo Junior Sabres, where they combined for two goals. Lewicki, Adrian's all-time leading scorer, led Division III last season with 66 points, while Schroka had 62 and Shureb 59. Early indications are that the trio has made the jump to the pros without a hitch.
Returner Kourtney Kunichika is one of the most solid two-way players in the league. Maddie Elia, a rookie out of Boston University, also was impressive in her debut and seems like she'll find a niche as a bottom three forward.
"There isn't one person who stands out," Seiling said. "They've all played very admirably. I'm happy with their knowledge of the game and how they're working together, since we have a slew of new players."
Buie, in particular, looks like she has made a massive leap. The only player in the league with two Isobel Cup titles, she has shined in the preseason. Despite her growth and some of the other new talent on the roster, Seiling isn't overreacting quite yet to any individual effort.
"We have a lot of depth," Buie said. "We've had lots of strong players join us too. The depth at forward is great, the defense is awesome too, but it's going to be hard to narrow the bench at forward. We have so many top players, and the depth will come through during the season."
The Beauts' defense, sans Harrington, looks stronger than last season, as well. Edney has been paired with Jacquie Greco, a two-way player who has played forward and defense. The second unit of Kayla Parsons and Colleen Murphy has a history dating back to high school, while Sarah Casorso and Jordyn Burns also showed some ability to control a power play in the preseason.
For a team depleted so much in the offseason, the Beauts are surprisingly deep.
"There's no reason why we can't repeat," Buie said. "The expectations we have in this organization ... this group of girls can do it."