IT'S ISOBEL CUP OR BUST FOR LEXI BENDER, PRIDE
By Dan Rice
Lexi Bender has been here before. She was a rookie on the last Boston Pride team that was favored to win the Isobel Cup back in 2016. That team steamrolled through the NWHL’s regular season (16-1-0) and was expected to become back-to-back champions in the league’s first two seasons. Instead, the Pride were upset by the Buffalo Beauts in the title game and when that happens, that feeling stays with you.
Fast forward three years and the Pride have made it through another season with just one loss. Two weekends ago, Bender made it clear that she believes things will be different this time around.
“We have to show up; and not expect that by just showing up that we are going to win," said the four-year NWHL veteran. "A big thing during our last regular-season weekend that you may have seen is we turned it up a notch and we are playing playoff hockey now. That was a commitment we made to each other in the locker room before Saturday’s game. This is the energy we have to bring in the playoffs, let's start getting that down now.”
All they did that weekend was record back-to-back shutouts, the first shutouts of the season for their goalie Lovisa Selander. Boston’s offense has been record-setting all season, but if they clamp down even harder defensively than they did during the first 22 games of the season, they could have a clear path to the Isobel Cup.
“It’s been an awesome experience," Bender said. "Definitely my favorite year of hockey, I love this group and the energy they bring every day. I also love that the coaches have been challenging us all year - I think with the season and the record we’ve had it would have been easy to taper off, but props to our coaches for challenging us every day in practice - telling us it’s not good enough even when the scoreboard says it’s good enough.”
It may be a silver lining for the Pride and bad news for the rest of the league that they don’t head into the postseason with thoughts of a perfect season hanging over their heads. “I know that we’re gonna show up, not expecting to win but with a deep desire to win. That’s a huge difference,” Bender replied when asked if that loss was a good thing for the group. “Our locker room is so special, we practice pretty late at night three times a week and everyone loves coming to the rink. Everyone is there an hour (if not more) early just to hang out with the group. That is pretty special.”
Bender was named an alternate captain prior to the season, something she considers an honor amongst such a talented group. “It’s been awesome to step into a leadership role this season and I’ve learned a lot from Jillian Dempsey and Kaleigh Fratkin about how to really lead a team,” added the Washington State native. “I just try to support everyone on my team and keep creating the product that we have on the ice. It’s been really fun this year and I’ve enjoyed it so much.”
She admitted that having former NHL defenseman Paul Mara as her head coach the past two seasons has helped her game grow as a defender.
“I have so much respect for him," Bender shared. "If he comes down the bench to say something to me during a game I take it to heart. I know both of our coaches, Paul and Heath Gordon, are such smart hockey minds who communicate very well. It’s been so great having them behind us on the bench.”
After what was a complicated summer in the women’s hockey world, Bender admitted that this season has exceeded her expectations and thinks the future of the league is bright as the NWHL wraps up its fifth season.“Obviously there were a lot of questions coming into this season, but I’ve been so impressed.
“I think the league has taken great steps this year," Bender added. "Having our games on Twitch, with all of the viewership (we’ve had) and having those real data points to show people. The revenue split. Also the game-day experience. I don’t know how many Boston Pride games you have been to this year, but there’ll be a whistle and all of a sudden we’re throwing lobsters into the stands and someone is winning $100 from Legal Sea Foods. There’s been so much energy in the crowds and they’re making the game-day experience really great."
The Pride were off the final regular-season weekend - as if they needed more time to perfect their plan - but Bender knows they are not invincible. They continue to work and prepare hard in anticipation of their semifinal home game on March 8 at Warrior Arena against a yet to be determined opponent. Tickets for that game and all 2020 NWHL Isobel Cup Playoff games are available at nwhl.zone/tickets.
“Because I’m a defender I’m a little biased, but I think we need to clean up our D zone a little bit,” said Bender. “We’ve been working on keeping someone in front of the net to patrol that area a little more and just continue to tighten that up.”
The Pride only gave up 43 goals in 24 games this season. If they tighten that up any more in the postseason, they will be that much closer to becoming the first team to lift the Isobel Cup for a second time.
Photo Credit: Michelle Jay