This is not how the Metropolitan Riveters wanted to start the 2018-19 season.
Both the Minnesota Whitecaps and Boston Pride have dismantled the team that had the best offense and defense in the league last year.
After three straight games on the road in two weekends, the Riveters are 0-3-0 and have been outscored 12-2 through 180 minutes of hockey.
So, what is wrong with the Riveters? Let’s take a closer look at one of the more surprising stories to unfold in the world of professional women’s hockey over the last few weeks.
The Possession Game
Saturday night’s game in Boston marked a new low point for the Riveters.
In the first period, the Pride outshot the Riveters 20-3, but somehow the visiting team managed to step off the ice for the first intermission with a 1-0 lead. By the time the final horn sounded, the Pride had outshot the Riveters 38-18.
Through the first three games of the season the Riveters have averaged 20.33 SF60 (shots for per-60 minutes) and 31.33 SA60 at all strengths. Those are alarming numbers for a team that finished the 2017-18 regular season with 31.89 SF60 and 23.35 SA60 — which were both league bests.
The numbers don’t lie. The Riveters are not playing like the team that won the 2018 Isobel Cup and looked unbeatable for most of the 2017-18 regular season.
Thus far, the Rivs have scored just one goal during even-strength hockey and they have allowed 10 goals against at evens. You just can’t (and won’t) win hockey games with those numbers.
Last season the Riveters’ defenders excelled at moving the puck, especially in the offensive zone and the neutral zone. But this October, the Riveters blueliners have been guilty of making a lot of mistakes both with and without the puck. Their zone exits have been sloppy and, as a result, the transition offense that burned so many defenders last season has been grounded.
The Riveters are allowing far too many rushes and are missing far too many passes coming out of their own zone. Thus far there have been too many attempted passes to players at the end of their shifts who were stepping off the ice, too many rebounds allowed around Fitzgerald’s crease, and too many power plays that failed to generate real chances.
A lot of these miscues are likely tied to the team’s transition from former head coach Chad Wiseman to new head coach Randy Velischek.
Velischek joined the Riveters in the final days of the preseason and was still learning his players names during the Champions Cup on Sat. 29th at Princeton University. Just like his players, Velischek needs time to adapt and learn about the abilities and skills of his players, but that is an uphill battle because of all the turbulence in the lineup.
The absence of top-six winger Miye D’Oench has poured lighter fluid onto the team’s sloppy play. D’Oench won’t be back with the team until mid-November, and even then she’ll likely need to adjust to Velischek and her new teammates.
In addition to D’Oench’s absence, Erika Lawler missed the first two games of the year, Kelly Nash has yet to suit up because of her position as an assistant coach at Princeton, and the Riveters were without 2018 NWHL Defender of the Year Courtney Burke against the Pride.
The Riveters are also missing key veterans Bray Ketchum, Ashley Johnston, and Harrison Browne, all of whom retired during the offseason. The same can be said of Tatiana Rafter who gave the team a dangerous third line for two years.
Going High on Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s .869 save percentage is a clear sign that things are not going well for Newark’s team. Last season Fitzgerald finished the year with a .920 save percentage and she followed that performance with back-to-back shutouts in the 2018 Isobel Cup Playoffs. So, to see her numbers this low, even after just three games, is troubling.
Many think that NWHL skaters have finally figured out that the way to beat Fitzgerald is to shoot high. And thus far, the vast majority of the goals that have beaten her have gotten past her glove, blocker, and shoulders.
But the 5-foot-10 Fitzgerald is a butterfly goaltender, which means her first instinct is to get into the butterfly position and take away the bottom half of the net. It’s always a good idea to shoot high on butterfly goalies.
The problem here isn’t that Fitzgerald has been lackluster — remember, she stopped the Pride’s first 20 shots on Saturday night — the problem is that the Riveters are allowing far too many second and third chances, chances on the rush, and open shots from the ”Royal Road” in front of the net.
Fitzgerald has definitely allowed a few goals that she should want back, but the Riveters haven’t been outscored 12-2 because of her.
Home Ice Advantage
The eyes of the women’s hockey world will be on the Riveters this weekend when they host the Minnesota Whitecaps at the Prudential Center in Newark on Oct. 20th for their home opener. Just 25 hours after the puck is dropped at the Prudential Center, the Riveters and Whitecaps will play again at the Barnabas Health Hockey House.
That’s two games in two days against a team that has already swept the Riveters in a weekend series. It will be a big test for Randy Velischek and some of the new faces who look like they will be regulars in the lineup this year, including defender Chelsea Ziadie and wingers Alexa Aramburu and Audra Richards.
It will also be an opportunity for the Riveters’ veterans to make a statement in front of their loyal fans, but that will be no small task with Madison Packer likely out of the lineup.
It’s hard to believe that the Riveters are a bad weekend away from an 0-5-0 start, but the deck has been stacked against them thus far. The Riveters simply have too much talent to struggle like this for the rest of the year. The only thing that matters moving forward for the Riveters is getting healthy, getting their confidence back, eliminating costly mistakes, and getting back to playing Riveters hockey.