What. A. Game! After much hype, the 2019 Isobel Cup final on Sunday truly lived up to expectations. Ending in a thrilling overtime finish that saw the Minnesota Whitecaps beat the Buffalo Beauts 2-1 in front of a full house at TRIA Arena. It was fitting that it took overtime to settle the contest, as it was one of the most evenly matched finals you will likely ever see.
The big news pre-game was that Beauts goaltender Shannon Szabados would not be dressing due to a lower-body injury. For most teams this would be catastrophic news, but thanks to the Beauts’ embarrassment of riches in goal they were able to call on Team USA goaltender Nicole Hensley. Apart from that, both teams were at full strength heading into the game.
Momentum Swings Back and Forth in Period One
The opening period was understandably a cagey affair, with both teams feeling each other out in the opening minutes. Katie McGovern used her speed creating an early chance for the Whitecaps. That speed found her skating around a Beauts defender before making a dangerous pass across the crease. Though that pass was ultimately cleared it set the stage for the rest of the game. At the other end, both Maddie Elia and Dani Cameranesi forced Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille into dramatic saves.
With the Beauts starting to get on top, Kelly Babstock took a minor penalty for tripping which swung the momentum back in Minnesota’s favor. Hannah Brandt had a dangerous shot catch Nicole Hensley in the face mask, before Hensley again had to fight to find a shot through traffic as the power-play ended.
Both Teams Strike Before the End of the Period
After a hard
The Whitecaps were stung by the goal and the team looked to even the score. It only took the Whitecaps just over a minute to reply with a goal of their own. A stretch pass from Kendall Coyne Scholfield was missed by the Beauts defender, that action sent Amy Menke in on a one on one with Hensley, and she fired a wonderful shot
The Stalemate Continues in Period Two
The theme for the second period were penalties and top quality goaltending from both sides. An early tripping penalty to Savannah Harmon sent the Whitecaps back on the powerplay. Nicole Hensley was again the star of the show, making crucial stops on shots from Coyne Schofield and Stecklein. Hensley was again called into action after the penalty expired, making a huge save on Amy Menke after she again skated in one on one.
A Dani Cameranesi tripping penalty again left the Beauts shorthanded, but this was short lived as the Whitecaps’ Amanda Boulier took a tripping penalty of her own. Then another Whitecaps tripping penalty was called. This time to Lauren Barnes, this led to the Beauts’ biggest chance of the period. The puck broke to Taylor Accursi, who whiffed on a shot with the goal mouth open in front of her. The period ended with the score still 1-1, but the Whitecaps were definitely the dominant team during this period.
Period Three End to End as Teams Push for a Winner
The third period was a frantic end to end contest, with both teams coming close to finding a winning goal. Undoubtedly the best chance of the period came from Blake Bolden. She received the puck in her own end, skated past two Whitecaps players before unleashing a bullet of a shot that beat Leveille. Unfortunately for Bolden and the Beauts, the shot smashed off the crossbar and was cleared.
Despite the scare and the pressure, the Whitecaps were not without their own chances. Jonna Curtis fired a low shot that brought the very best out of Hensley in the Buffalo goal, stretching her leg out to just get a toe to the puck and stop it from going in. A late Kelly Babstock penalty gave the Whitecaps one last chance to steal a win in regulation, but Hensley again came up big with a glove save.
Regulation ended with the game tied 1-1. Overtime was now on the clock in order to decide a winner.
Lee Stecklein Is the Hero
After 60 minutes of a deadlocked game, it appeared that we were going to be in store for a long OT. That could not have been further from the truth, as it only took a further 48 seconds to decide the Isobel Cup championship. Katie McGovern won a clean offensive zone draw. That face-off sent the puck to Stecklein who fired a quick shot, which appeared to glance off the stick of Dani Cameranesi. This slight change of direction was enough to beat Hensley through the five-hole. That sparked emphatic celebrations from the Whitecaps players and fans. The win provided the fairytale ending to Minnesota’s first season in the NWHL.
Stecklein was deservingly awarded the MVP after her two-point effort. Aside from those points she really was a danger every time she had the puck. She also had a hand in most of the dangerous chances the Whitecaps created. Other standouts for Minnesota were Kendall Coyne Schofield and Katie McGovern, the speedy duo being a constant threat on the break.
For Buffalo, it was a heartbreaking loss, especially for Nicole Hensley who was outstanding all day. Had Shannon Szabados been fit, Hensley would have been the backup. For her to come in and to perform so well is a testament to how great a player she is, makes her the perfect back up or a starter on another team. Blake Bolden and Annika Zalewski were the other top performers on the day.
The 2019 Isobel Cup final was a fitting end to a very successful season for the NWHL. The race continues to be the first repeat winner since the league’s inception in 2015 and both of these teams should be major contenders next season.
Feature Image Credit – Minnesota Whitecaps – Photo by Tom Morris