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How two of the world's best goalies are thriving with the Beauts

Nicole Hensley and Shannon Szabados opposed each other in the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships gold medal game in Michigan – Team USA vs. Team Canada in the greatest rivalry in women’s hockey.

Now, the two elite goaltenders are teammates on the Buffalo Beauts, with Hensley even spotted wearing a Szabados shirt during workouts at HarborCenter.

Their goals are the same: Bring an Isobel Cup championship back to Buffalo.

They are not comparing their goals against averages.

Or competing for the most shutouts.

Or getting aggravated about conceding playing time.

“They don’t have egos,” Beauts coach Ric Seiling said.

Hensley and Team USA’s 3-2 overtime victory from 18 months ago is never mentioned, not even in jest.

“Getting to know her, she would never say anything like that,” Szabados said. “And obviously, getting to know her, I’m happy for her. She played extremely well in that tournament and continues to here and everywhere she goes.”

But the aftermath of that game has stuck with Hensley.

“One of the first times I’d ever interacted with Shannon, was at the 2017 Worlds,” she said. “We were both in the media area at the same time, and I thought it was really cool that after the gold medal game, we’re both being interviewed by different people and she got done first and she walked behind me and took the time to say ‘great game.’ That’s not an easy thing to do after an emotional and big game like that.

"She is a very humble, down-to-earth person who has earned every right to be cocky and arrogant and she’s not. And I think that’s incredibly admirable, and I’m just trying to learn from that.”

No matter how good they are, one of the Beauts' goaltenders has to sit every game.

Hensley, 24, and Szabados, 32, split the first two games, both shutout victories against the Connecticut Whale.

Hensley stopped 10 shots in a 4-0 victory in the season opener on Oct. 7 on the road.

Szabados stopped 22 shots in a 7-0 triumph in the home opener on Oct. 13 at HarborCenter.

They’ll continue to rotate starts this weekend, when the Beauts play Saturday and Sunday at unbeaten Minnesota (4-0), their first of four sets of back-to-back contests on the 16-game regular season schedule.

“She’s the best in the world for a reason,” Hensley said, “so getting to practice with her, sit next to her in the locker room and be in the gym with her has been a real learning experience for me. It’s definitely been a positive.”

Shannon Szabados posted a shutout in her Beauts debut. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Signing Szabados

A three-time Olympian and two-time gold medalist, Szabados wanted to play for the Beauts, which left the team just one option:

Sign her.

“You hear the name Shannon Szabados and you go, ‘Wow. OK,’” Beauts general manager Nik Fattey said. “And then you think, ‘OK, well, how can you make that work?’”

Szabados is a superstar, arguably the best female goaltender in the world, in net for each of the last three Olympic gold medal games. She is a trailblazer, having spent much of her amateur and entire professional career playing in men’s leagues. And this was another first.

No active member of Team Canada had ever played in the nascent National Women’s Hockey League, which was founded in 2015 with four teams, an upstart rival of sorts to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

But Szabados was interested in the Beauts for a few reasons, first and foremost, the convenience. It is the closest pro team to the Cleveland area, a seven-hour round trip commute from where she lives with her boyfriend, and she was impressed with the level of competition and top-notch resources.

The Beauts have advanced to the Isobel Cup finals in each of the league’s first three seasons, winning the championship in 2017. And they were purchased later that year by Kim and Terry Pegula, co-owners of the Buffalo Bills, Sabres and HarborCenter, the modern downtown arena where the Beauts practice and play.

“It was just a matter of where I was in life and they happened to be the closest team,” Szabados said, describing her initial interest in the organization. “And after following up and hearing a little more about the team and what a great direction they were in, it kind of sold me on it.

"But it wasn’t really a decision over one league or the other or one team over another. It was just kind of this is the closest team to where I am in life right now.”

Fattey signed her to a one-year contract, the standard length for every player in the league.

The Beauts couldn’t say no to Szabados. Except they already had Hensley.

Hensley’s opportunity

Hensley won a gold medal with Team USA as the Americans earned a shootout victory against Canada at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.

The Colorado native didn’t start opposite Szabados in the title game, but she was in goal when the United States shut out the Olympic Athletes From Russia, 5-0, in the preliminary round, stopping all 13 shots she faced.

Hensley signed with the Beauts in mid-June and was slated to replace Amanda Leveille, who played every minute of every game last season on the way to being named the NWHL Goaltender of the Year.

Hensley had never played pro hockey, but she had elite international experience, including the Worlds in 2016 and '17. She started all four years at Division I Lindenwood University in Missouri, posting a 2.98 goals against average. And she was eager to carry the load after Leveille, who played four seasons for the University of Minnesota, signed with the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps this summer.

Two weeks after Hensley signed with the Beauts, the team inked Szabados.

“Shannon and I had kind of talked about it, just kind of as it was developing,” Hensley said. “We’d spoken about it and I think both of us felt comfortable with each other. We talked before at World Championships and different things like that."

Fattey laid the groundwork for their working relationship during the summer.

“I was honest with them up front, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got. This is how we’re going to do it,’” the general manager said. “And they were great. Professionals. They both took to it and so far, so good.”

Two better than one?

Seiling said the Beauts learned the challenges of having only one goalie last season and he wanted to try things differently this time around. He saw a pattern: The Beauts played multiple goalies in 2016-17 and won the championship. Last season, they played one goalie and lost in the title game.

“We’ve tried to be as fair as we can, and that’s where the splitting comes in,” Seiling said. “Is that going to be the big difference? I have no idea. It won’t hurt. It won’t hurt being able to put a fresh goalie in every night that’s world caliber.”

Szabados compared the Beauts’ goalie rotation to her international experience. Hensley was among three Team USA goalies at the Olympics.

“Last year, we had three goalies with Team Canada and maybe a few more games on the schedule,” Szabados said, “but with the amount of ice that’s available as far as practices, goalie sessions, games played, just playing at that level, you’re used to sharing the net when it comes to playing with goalies of that caliber.”

The goalies are trying to learn from each other. Hensley said she made an adjustment to her training routine based on when she's playing from watching Szabados.

“You don’t treat it any differently,” Hensley said. “Mostly it’s just a matter of your off-ice preparation, how many times are you going to lift that week or how many times are you going to do extra conditioning? Shannon started our one game (the previous) weekend, so it’s like, what do I need to do to keep myself in shape if I’m not playing that day? But at the same time, you have to be careful, because you have to be ready to go in …

“Learning from her, her being at the top for so long, she knows how to take care of her body throughout the week. So it’s just kind of  asking her questions on that kind of stuff, how she approaches things in the gym and the training room.”

For Szabados, working with Hensley has helped her tweak her style.

“I think as a goalie, the most opportune time to learn is when you’re on the ice with someone that maybe plays a little bit of a different style or different game,” Szabados said. “She’s a little younger than me, so maybe just grew up with different goalie coaches using different techniques, so it’s been fun just kind of going back and forth and being able to work with each other.

“We’ve been having a blast so far.”

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