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NWHL All-Star Weekend brings memories and excitement

by Nicole Jelinek / Pittsburgh Penguins

Phil Kessel may be a Stanley Cup champion, but his sister Amanda Kessel and her team are now All-Star Champions.

The National Women's Hockey League gave hockey fans a treat with a chance to see the best of the best at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for the second annual NWHL All-Star Weekend on Saturday and Sunday.

The weekend showcased the NWHL's top 28 players from the four-team league to show off their hockey abilities in a skills and game competition.

Kelley Steadman of the Buffalo Beauts and Amanda Kessel of the New York Riveters were chosen as captains to draft their teams for the final game: Team Kessel vs. Team Steady.

The event went beyond showcasing the NWHL's ability, though. The NWHL's fan base and audience are growing more and more, especially in western Pennsylvania. An indicator of this was seen from the turnout of the weekend with the Saturday morning girls' clinic and Sunday's game both selling out.

Kathy Pippy, the director of business operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite, has seen how valuable having the NWHL All-Star weekend in Pittsburgh has been for the kids.

"A lot of young girls are here," Pippy said. "There was a clinic this morning (Saturday) for the young girls. They are really excited to meet the NWHL All-Stars. It is going to be a really great atmosphere and great to showcase women's hockey here in Pittsburgh."

Here is everything you need to know about the weekend:

NWHL All-Star Captains… With Pittsburgh Ties:

*One of the two captains for this weekend's contest was Kelley Steadman. Steadman may not be from Pittsburgh, but has her connections. She played at Mercyhurst and is currently the director of hockey operations at Robert Morris University.

Steadman has been thrilled with the turnout for the weekend and is thankful for the Penguins organization being so helpful.

"Having the support of the Penguins has been huge," Steadman said. "They have helped draw crowds and got people excited. There are going to be so many kids, friends and families here in the stands for all of us. We are looking forward to it."

*Pittsburgh had a new Kessel in town for the weekend to cheer on. New York Riveters' Amanda Kessel got an opportunity to play in front of the fan base of her brother, Phil Kessel, while he was on the road with the Penguins.

"It's exciting," Kessel commented on being in Pittsburgh. "It is really encouraging to have a sold-out crowd here. It shows the markets that are there to dive into."

Saturday's Skills Showdown:

*The excitement was felt as soon as the skates hit the ice. The Skills Showdown kicked off on Saturday and the players received a standing ovation when each name was announced without any hesitation.

*Team Kessel and Team Steady put on quite the show in an extremely close skills competition, but Team Kessel came out on top and took the 'W' for Day 1.

*The first event was for fastest skater and fastest goalie, and was taken by Team Kessel.

*The event to see was the shooting accuracy competition. Team Kessel's skill stood out tremendously in this event with Hilary Knight going four-for-six in 14.1 seconds, but was beaten as Steadman came in hot to beat her by .1 seconds.

*The hardest shot competition was just as close. It looked like Kessel's team had the hardest shot on lockdown, but there was a change of plans. Blake Bolden of the Boston Pride (and Team Steadman) took the all-time record of 88.5 mph from Megan Bozek to seal an event win for Team Steady.

"It was awesome," Bolden said about taking the title from Bozek. "Her and I are great friends. She always cracks a joke, 'oh, you are going to win this year,' and I am like, 'okay, whatever.' It felt good. It felt awesome."

 *The final event for the Skills Showdown was the shootout challenge. Team Kessel went 2-for-12 and Team Steady fell short by one to give Team Kessel the 3-2 overall score.

*3-2 was the overall score in favor of Team Kessel. The starting score for Sunday's All-Star game was thus 3-2, giving team Kessel a 1-goal lead. Kessel was also named MVP of the game.

All-Star Game

*Sunday's game was a sold out 4-on-4 battle between the top players in the NWHL for two 25-minute periods. Amanda Kessel and her team came into Sunday's game with the one-point advantage from their Skills Showdown win on Saturday: 3-2 was the starting score.

*Team Kessel successfully came out on top winning the Skills Showdown and was the overall winner of the 2017 NWHL All-Star Weekend, but this was not done without a fight from Team Steady. The game was a back-and-forth matchup, but Team Kessel came out on top with the 11-10 win.

*Move over Phil, Amanda Kessel has game and got a hat trick to go along with her team's overall win. Kessel got the first goal of the game to put her team up by two with an unassisted tally, and she did not stop there. She was able to get open in front of the net to take a nice shot from Dana Trivigno to gain her second goal of the night in the first period and got her third on an open net in the second period.

"I think my teammates wanted it more for me, which was pretty cool," Kessel joked. "I had two chances at an empty net, so hopefully I could go one-for-two on that."

*Kessel also mentioned that Phil may have caught a glimpse of her, but has some room to tease her later.

"I think he was able to catch the last little bit of our game," Kessel said. "I had a couple of teammates point him out. I didn't see him, but I think he was laughing that I missed the empty net."

*Kessel's first goal got her team heated up and they scored two more quick goals by Megan Bozek and Rebecca Russo to give them a 3-goal lead on Team Steady, 6-3. However, just like Kessel's team got three quick ones to take the lead, Team Steady got one, two, three from Emily Pfalzer, Madison Packer and Kelly Babstock to tie the game at 6-6.

*Kessel admitted she had to keep her team amped up. "We need to go, we need to get the next one," Kessel said to her team. "We wanted to pull away, but we weren't able to do that very often. It was a really close game. It is exactly what you would expect with two even teams. It was very competitive out there."

*Steadman was pleased with the amount of skill both teams brought to the table throughout the game.

"We definitely wanted to come out and play hard, and I think both teams did," Steadman said. "Coming off that first shift, (Meghan) Duggan put me into the net and I was like, 'alright, here we go.' It was fun. Both sides played hard. We wanted to show the crowd what it's like in a real game, which is physical and fast, so that's what we did."

*While Kessel seemed to be the star of the show, Harrison Browne almost got a hat trick, but finished the game with two goals. Steadman joked that she was happy for Browne, but was glad he didn't get it.

"Harrison has done really well this year with all of the attention he has gotten," Steadman said of Browne, who came out as the first openly transgender athlete in North American professional sports. "I think he has handled it pretty well. It was great to see him get a couple goals. It was great to have some Beauts out there. We had seven this year, which was a lot. It was fun to be out there with teammates and playing against them as well. We didn't want him to get the hat trick just because, but it was fun."

*Overall, both teams put up an amazing effort that did a great job showcasing the best players in women's hockey and that was seen up until the final seconds of the game. Final score: 11-10, Team Kessel.

Women's Hockey outlook from Captains:

*The amount of people from Day 1 to Day 2 looked like it had doubled and Team Kessel and Team Steadman could not be more thankful.

"I heard a couple Kessels (chants) and I think my dad started the Steady one," Steadman joked. "The atmosphere was great. The fans have been so awesome the last few days. Today there was a packed house and it was pretty loud and energetic out there. I think I have said it all along, and Kessel has said it too, but (Pittsburgh) is a great sports city. Regardless of what the sport is, hockey, football, whatever, people are really passionate here. I think any sort of support we can get from them has been great. I think moving forward we see how much they support women's hockey and from the Penguins organization on down, it has been awesome."

"I honestly heard more Steadys (chants) I think," Kessel said with a smirk. "I thought that was pretty cool. When I'm in a game I tend to not hear the crowd, but I did hear the Steadys." Kessel continued on to say, "(the Penguins) did a great job helping Pittsburgh in general with promoting. We had a successful skills competition and today I hope the fans enjoyed themselves too."

*Both Kessel and Steadman saw the weekend as a success and are continuing to see a change for the better with promotion of women's hockey.

"I think there is more of a market for women's hockey," Steadman said. "We have seen in the last couple of years the youth leagues that start it. Most of it comes from support of NHL teams."

"I think one of the biggest things that has changed is media and social media," Kessel said. "You see people now and some of the top names having 50, 60 thousand followers. That really grows our sport and it's been very helpful."

Kessel's name has grown to be huge in the NWHL and she looks to use that to help further promote women's hockey.

"It is awesome. I take a lot of pride in that," she said. "I try to do everything I can to keep the game going so when they are older, they have a chance to do this too."

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