On Saturday, Sept. 29 the first-ever Champions Cup ended in a 4-2 victory for Luleå Hockey/MSSK, the reigning SDHL champions.
As we all expected in the weeks leading up to the big showdown, there was a lot to unpack and consider after the final horn sounded.
Let’s take a look at five big takeaways from Luleå’s win over the defending Isobel Cup Champion Metropolitan Riveters.
One Game, One Winner
Luleå was the better team and played that way the vast majority of the game. The European club’s forecheck suffocated the Riveters all game long. The Riveters weren’t able to get much of anything going in the first period, but eventually found their offense when Luleå handed them three 5-on-3 chances in the second period.
The Riveters’ short bench was likely the biggest story of the game. The Newark-based squad had only 12 skaters on hand for the showdown in Princeton.
Key contributors Amanda Kessel, Miye D’Oench, Erika Lawler, Courtney Burke, Jenny Ryan, and Kiira Dosdall were all missing from the lineup. Luleå, on the other hand, had 20 skaters dressed for the game according to the box score, including two of the best players in the world in Michelle Karvinen and Jenni Hiirikoski.
It’s temping to look at the result of the Champions Cup and say that Luleå is the superior team, but there’s a lot to consider here. The Riveters’ short bench was a tremendous disadvantage and that showed in the third period.
Star winger Rebecca Russo was taking shifts on defense to help the Riveters rest their blueliners. It was a brutal test of endurance for a team that’s only been back on the ice for a few weeks.
It’s also important to remember that this was a one-game playoff. This wasn’t a series. This wasn’t the end-all-be-all test to see which team or league was better. The Champions Cup was a fascinating and unique game that just so happened to have some hardware on the line. With all of that being said, the right team won on Saturday afternoon.
Learning on the Job
Saturday’s game was also Randy Velischek’s first as the new head coach of the Riveters. After the game Velischek admitted that he was still learning many of his players’ names, including the last name of reigning NWHL MVP Alexa Gruschow.
Velischek may be new to the NWHL, but he knows hockey and he was particularly pleased with the effort his team put forth on Saturday.
“All positives, I really have to say this.” Velischek shared with The Ice Garden. “Playing against a team that is fit, that is prepared as these players are. They played six games in their league and they’re 6-0 and I’m sure they’re one of the top teams in Europe. The fact that these players, who have not really had a training camp, put in that kind of effort this afternoon is something to build off of.”
A new coach likely means new systems — which Velischek told The Ice Garden that he has yet to work with the team on — and other serious adjustments for the Riveters. So, don’t be shocked if the defending Isobel Cup Champions stumble out of the starting gate this year.
D’Oench will be away from the team until mid-November and the Riveters have not had a lot of time to gel and work together before they begin their regular season with a weekend series in Minnesota on Oct. 6-7.
Karvinen is on Her Game
At the end of three periods, there was no doubt about who the first star of the Champions Cup was.
Michelle Karvinen scored two goals — including a shorthanded goal scored during a 5-on-3 Riveters’ power play — and had the primary assist on Emma Nordin’s empty-netter. She was downright electrifying for Luleå all game long. Karvinen was unselfish, but still put four shots on net, and seemed to have the puck on a string when she was in the offensive zone.
Prior to the game, Karvinen had five goals and six assists in five games for Luleå in the SDHL. In other words, she’s on pace to have yet another brilliant season. Karvinen feels great about where her game is, but was more eager to talk about what her team is in the early stages of the 2018-19 SDHL season.
“Even when we’re winning we’re still trying to get better,” Karvinen explained to The Ice Garden. “It’s a very humble group that wants to improve every day. We’re working really hard and practicing multiple times a day and Luleå Hockey has really given us the opportunity to do so. A lot of us have never had that opportunity.”
Watching Luleå and Hiirikoski — who had six shots and an assist in the Champions Cup — up close is all the explanation anyone needs to understand what has made Luleå so successful in the SDHL. They’re one heck of a team and Karvinen is one heck of a player.
The SDHL is Plenty Physical
There’s a perception among fans that the NWHL is a very physical professional women’s league, but Luleå was not caught off guard by the physicality of the Riveters. Elite women’s hockey is always physical, but that physicality might look a little more intense in the NWHL because of the smaller playing surface of North American rinks.
“I think it’s definitely the smaller rink,” Karvinen shared. “We’re also allowed to do a lot [of physical play] in Sweden (the SDHL), but it’s always tough in women’s hockey. It really depends on what referee you’re getting. I think a lot of us really wish we could body check a little more and kinda know where the line goes, because you never really know.”
It definitely appeared that Luleå liked to use the boards and attack from the perimeter when they were in the offensive zone, but they did not shy away from contact in the neutral or defensive zones. There were a number of big collisions in the game, and Luleå took six more minors than the Riveters did after 60 minutes of play. They also showed a lot of emotion when they were on the receiving end of a few too many controversial calls.
There were a lot of new faces on the ice for the Riveters on Saturday, but newcomers Kristin Lewicki — who scored the Rivs’ second goal of the game — and rookie defender Chelsea Ziadie stole the show. Coach Randy Velischek had positive things to say about both players after the game.
Ziadie played the majority of the game on a pair with All-Star defender Kelsey Koelzer. She may be small in stature, but Ziadie is smart and has no panic in her game. On Saturday, she moved the puck well and kept her stick where it needed to be to disrupt the creative passing plays of Luleå.
“Chelsea is fantastic, I got to play with her at Harvard, so I knew what she was capable of,” Riveters captain Michelle Picard told The Ice Garden. “Today she played fantastic, and it was no surprise to me because I saw it at Harvard. I’m super excited to see how the year continues for her.”
Ashley Johnston’s retirement over the summer has created a vacancy on the Riveters’ blue line. It’s still early, but Ziadie looks like the leading candidate to fill that hole in the lineup.