The 2018-19 NWHL regular season came to a close on Sunday after a 16-game regular season, with the Isobel Cup playoffs right around the corner. The Isobel Cup is named after Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, daughter of Lord Stanley and one of the first known women to play the game of ice hockey. Now into its fourth season, there has yet to be a repeat Cup winner.
There was all to play for right up until the final regular season game, thanks to the new playoff format for this season. This year sees all five teams make the playoffs, with the 4th and 5th place teams playing a “play-in” game, with the winner securing a place in the semi-finals.
The Whitecaps Lead the Way
Minnesota Whitecaps, in their inaugural season, finished as the regular season champions with a 12-4-0 record. The Whitecaps have been the most consistent team all season and finish the season on the back of a five-game winning streak and go into the playoffs as deserved favorites.
Familiar foes Buffalo Beauts and Boston Pride finished 2nd and 3rd respectively and will square off again in the semi-finals. Last years champions Metropolitan Riveters beat the Beauts in overtime on the final day to secure 4th place ahead of Connecticut Whale, who finished the season with a miserable 10 game losing streak.
The playoffs commence this week with some enticing match-ups, all of which will be shown live on the NWHL website. Let’s take a look at the upcoming games.
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Connecticut Whale vs Metropolitan Riveters
The first ever playoff “play-in” game sees the bottom side Connecticut Whale travel to New Jersey on Thursday for a 7pm EST face off against the Riveters. These teams split their season series 2-2, each winning one game home and away. The Riveters will go into the game as favorites after beating a hot Buffalo team 4-3 in overtime on Sunday. The Whale have to go all the way back to December 2nd for their last win, however both their regular season wins came against the Riveters so that should give them some hope.
Amanda Kessel led the Riveters in scoring during the regular season, putting up 17 points in only 13 games. She actually finished the season as the league leader in assists with 15 and will be instrumental for the Riveters as they push to make the semi-final. Another key contributor on offense will be Madison Packer, who led the team in goals alongside Audra Richards. In goal will be reigning VEDA NWHL Player of the Week Katie Fitzgerald, fresh off the back of her 40 save effort against Buffalo which secured her team home-ice advantage for this game.
The Whale will need to find offense from somewhere if they hope to progress any further this season. They averaged only 1.38 goals per game this season while conceding 4 goals against per game on average. They will need to see big efforts from the likes of captain Emily Fluke and team points leader Katerina Mrázová, as well as rookie goaltender Erin O’Neill, to make it into the semi-finals.
Who Will Be the Hero?
The great thing about playoff hockey though is that any team can win it on the day. The intensity and desperation from both teams should make for a fascinating game. Both teams will be hoping their players can elevate their games, and the game may boil down to an individual moment of brilliance.
Can the Riveters get the job done? Or will it be the Whale swimming into a semi-final place?
Boston Pride vs Buffalo Beauts
HarborCenter in Buffalo is the venue this Saturday at 7.30pm EST as the Buffalo Beauts host the Boston Pride in a repeat of last season’s semi-final. The Pride will be looking for revenge after Buffalo won that game 3-2 in overtime in what was a thrilling contest. These two teams have been evenly matched all season, although the Beauts did take the season series 3-1.
The Beauts started the season poorly, going 2-3-0 and firing head coach Ric Seiling. Former NHL’er Cody McCormick took over behind the bench and the Beauts went on to finish the season 9-1-1, securing a home semi-final. Boston, coached by ex-NHL’er Paul Mara, was consistent throughout the season but lost key games against both Buffalo and Minnesota, ultimately finishing third in the final standings.
Quality at Both Ends of the Ice
Eight of the top 10 scorers during the regular season came from these two teams. The Beauts Hayley Scamurra led the league in points with 20, whilst Maddie Elia led the league in goals with 12. Blake Bolden put up 11 assists from the blueline, and was recently nominated for Defender of the Year.
For the Pride, they have received major contributions from throughout their line-up. Star forward Haley Skarupa put up 18 points in only 13 appearances, and McKenna Brand had a breakout rookie season scoring 17 points. Gigi Marvin and Jillian Dempsey shared the team lead with 10 goals each.
At the other end of the ice, the goaltending battle could be the deciding factor in this game. The Beauts have an embarrassment of riches in goal, with Shannon Szabados and Nicole Hensley both putting up almost identical stats of 1.50 GAA and .935 SV% with two shutouts each. Szabados will likely be the starter on Saturday evening.
Katie Burt has been a rock in goal for Boston and has played in every game so far this season. Her regular season stats finished at 2.26 GAA with a .920 SV%. The 2017 1st overall pick in the NWHL Entry Draft has followed up her decorated NCAA career with an outstanding effort in her first pro season and will need to continue that into the Playoffs if the Pride hope to regain the Isobel Cup.
TBC vs Minnesota Whitecaps
The prize for winning Thursday’s “play-in” game will be a trip to Minnesota on Sunday to face the Whitecaps (faceoff 1.30pm CST). The Whitecaps will be heavy favorites for this game after ending their first season in the league as regular season champions and riding a five-game winning streak.
It was also announced that the Whitecaps’ fans broke the NWHL record for the fastest sellout, selling all 1200 tickets in just 26 hours. The Whitecaps have been a major success story this season both on and off the ice, and this game will mark the ninth home sellout in a row for the Minnesota team.
The Whitecaps have enjoyed regular offensive production throughout their roster, with seven players reaching double figures in points. The offensive leaders have been Jonna Curtis with 19 points and Kendall Coyne Schofield with 14. Coyne Schofield, the star of the men’s All-Star Fastest Skater competition, has been a key member of the Whitecaps top line alongside Hannah Brandt and Amy Menke.
On defense, Lee Stecklein and Amanda Boulier make for an extremely dangerous first pair and will pose a constant attacking threat throughout the game. Veterans Winny Brown and Chelsey Rosenthal provide years of experience between them, with Brown captaining the team at the age of 41. In goal, Amanda Leveille has played every game and finished the season with stats of 2.09 GAA and .923 SV%, the best numbers of her career.
My tentative predictions are that the Riveters will win the “play-in” game, Minnesota and Buffalo will win their respective semi-finals…and the Beauts end up as Isobel Cup Champions 2019.