With the Metropolitan Riveters defeating the Connecticut Whale 5-2 in Thursday night’s play-in game, the stage is now set for the 2019 NWHL Isobel Cup Playoff semifinals.
In a single-game elimination showdown, the Buffalo Beauts will host the Boston Pride on Saturday in the most anticipated game of the season. On Sunday the scene shifts to Minnesota, where the Riveters will take on the Whitecaps in a building where its offense mustered just one goal in 120 minutes of regular season hockey.
It’s time for some more must-win playoff hockey.
Minnesota Whitecaps (12-4-0)
The Minnesota Whitecaps won an intense race to finish at the top of the standings in its first season in the NWHL. Guaranteed home-ice advantage for the postseason, Minnesota is fully expecting TRIA Rink to be unfriendly for visitors as the rink sold out all home games during the regular season. While the State of Hockey is ready for an Isobel Cup, the Whitecaps will have their work cut out for them.
FASTEST. SELLOUT. IN LEAGUE [email protected] fans keep raising the bar! Semifinal tickets sold out in just 26 hours.
📝 https://t.co/1CUZCfP1Sr pic.twitter.com/sClUp7aOjF
Minnesota may boast an elite group of forwards, including Kendall Coyne Schofield, Jonna Curtis (both named a 2019 NWHL Newcomer of the Year finalist) and Hannah Brandt; however, its offense was only the third most-potent in the league. The main culprit behind that ranking is Minnesota’s lowly 7.5 percent success rate on the power play.
What the Whitecaps do have is solid goaltending, overwhelming team speed and one of the best defensive pairs in hockey. Amanda Boulier and Lee Stecklein were not only strong in their own end but were the most offensively productive d-pair of the 2018-19 season. Together, they are going to eat up a lot of minutes in the playoffs playing against the opposition’s top forwards.
Until they prove otherwise, the Whitecaps are the favorites to win the Isobel Cup and the road to the final is certainly the easiest for them among the league’s top three teams.
Buffalo Beauts (11-4-1)
The NWHL’s only privately owned franchise rebounded after a mediocre start and some big changes off the ice, and is widely considered a top contender for the Isobel Cup. Undefeated in regulation in the new year — the only loss since Jan. 1 was in a shootout to the Riveters in the regular season finale — Buffalo did not lose a single regular season home game.
“Every team is different in the playoffs, everybody elevates their game,” Beauts’ first-year head coach, Cody McCormick, told Sporting News. “The team [that wins] will be the team that wants it more, elevates their game, and plays bold. We’re going to do our preparation — and I’m sure they’re going to do theirs on their end — and we’re just going to be as ready as we can be.”
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McCormick also shared that as of last Sunday, he was still undecided on who his starting goaltender against the Pride would be. The obvious choice would be All-Star game MVP, Goaltender of the Year candidate and Newcomer of the Year finalist Shannon Szabados, who was one of the league’s leaders in save percentage (.934) and goals-against average (1.49).
Playing in front of Szabados is the All-Star defensive pair of Blake Bolden, who was recently named a finalist for Defender of the Year, and Olympic gold medalist Emily Pfalzer. The pair help tilt the ice in Buffalo’s favor and let the most productive first line in the NWHL make its mark.
Beauts go up 3-0 with Hayley Scamurra’s first goal of the season. #NWHL #CTWvsBUF pic.twitter.com/z2CWBHKXTh
That top line is led by the nearly unstoppable duo of Hayley Scamurra and Maddie Elia. Scamurra, who was recently named to USA Hockey’s 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship roster, led the league in scoring with 20 points in 16 games. Elia, Buffalo’s first line center and agent provocateur, led the NWHL with 12 goals while Dani Cameranesi, another member of Team USA who is often the third member of the trio, had 15 points in 14 games.
McCormick believes in both the skill and character of his group — and he should; the Beauts have all the tools they need to return to the Isobel Cup Final for the fourth consecutive year.
Boston Pride (11-5-0)
Following a disappointing 2017-18, the Boston Pride bounced back under first-year head coach Paul Mara. The Massachusetts native, capitalized on pre-existing chemistry among his roster to build what is arguably the best offense in the league as they finished with a league-best 3.75 goals-per-game.
However, when that offense is at its most dangerous is when Boston goes on the power play. The Pride’s 21.4 percent success rate stands head and shoulders over the other five teams while also carrying an elite offense at 5v5 according to Even-Strength.com.
Marvin makes a great pass to Brand and she puts it in! @TheBostonPride lead 2-0 against the Whitecaps #NWHL pic.twitter.com/13S3P5zlTK
Thanks in large part to a stacked group of forwards — led by team captain Jillian Dempsey, rookie McKenna Brand and Olympic gold medalists Gigi Marvin and Haley Skarupa — the Pride handed the first-place Whitecaps three of its four losses this season. However, Boston struggled in its season series agains the Beauts, its semifinal opponents dropping three of their four meetings including a shutout Jan. 5.
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Boston’s best chance at beating Buffalo at HarborCenter is getting a big game from rookie goaltender Katie Burt. The Boston College grad usurped Brittany Ott, the NWHL’s all-time leader in wins, as the Pride’s starter. Burt posted a .920 save percentage while leading the league in minutes played and saves and if she is on her game and the Pride’s power play delivers, Boston could surprise a lot of people in the postseason.
Metropolitan Riveters (4-12-0)
The Riveters are the reigning Isobel Cup champions but they enter Sunday’s semifinal against the Whitecaps as heavy underdogs — and they know it.
“I think that the [label of] ‘defending champions’ and having a target on our back is long gone after the season that we’ve had,” Riveters alternate captain Madison Packer told Sporting News after the team’s regular-season finale. “I think we don’t have any respect from anyone as far as on the ice. We spent half the season with people laughing at us at faceoffs.
“I’d rather be in the position that we’re in now than have someone gunning for us. We’re the sleeper.”
This Riveters’ squad is a sleeper because its a very different team than last year. An offense that scored 64 goals in 2017-18, put up just 30 goals this year despite the return of superstar winger Amanda Kessel. That inability to get pucks into the net directly contributed to the team’s 0-5-0 record at the start of the season with four of those first five losses against upcoming semifnal opponent Minnesota.
“The Whitecaps are fast, so we have to come out with the fastest hockey we’ve ever played,” forward Audra Richards told Sporting News after Thursday’s victory over the Whale. “If we play the way we did against Buffalo [on March 3], we’ll have success against Minnesota. Speed is key in this game because they have Kendall Coyne and Allie Thunstrom on the Whitecaps and it will be detrimental if they get loose.”
katie fitzgerald doing katie fitzgerald things pic.twitter.com/psojeq0VEY
The good news for the Riveters is that goaltender Katie Fitzgerald, last year’s Isobel Cup Playoff MVP, is back on top of her game after a rocky regular season. Fitzgerald has posted a .923 save percentage in her last five starts, including the Riveters 5-2 victory over the Connecticut Whale Thursday night.
With Fitzgerald on top of her game, the New Jersey-based team should be able to stand toe-for-toe with the Whitecaps; however, if the Riveters want to win, it’ll need to clean up its play in the neutral and defensive zones where costly breakdowns have plagued the team all year long.
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