The Minnesota Whitecaps’ inaugural NWHL season is off to a fantastic start. The team just finished their first season series, a 4-0-0 sweep against the defending Isobel Cup Champions, the Metropolitan Riveters. The Whitecaps outscored the Riveters 18-6 (including two empty net goals) and held the Riveters to an average of 24.25 shots per-game.
The speed of the Whitecaps was one of the biggest storylines heading into the 2018-19 season, but that has only been part of the reason why they have had so much success early this year. Through 240 minutes of hockey, reigning NWHL Goaltender of the Year Amanda Leveille has posted a .938 save percentage. Leveille has definitely looked sharp for the Whitecaps, but she has also benefited from playing behind an impressive group of defenders. Olympic gold medalist Lee Stecklein is the foundation of Minnesota’s blue line.
“I love my defense [playing] in front of me,” Leveille told The Ice Garden after Minnesota’s victory against the Riveters on Oct. 20 at the Prudential Center. “I actually had the pleasure of playing with Lee Stecklein before playing with her in pro hockey — I played with her on the Gophers. She’s such a talented defenseman and she leads by example and in the room, as well. [Then] you look at the other D that we have and they’re just fantastic.”
Stecklein has been eating up tough minutes on Minnesota’s top pair and has looked brilliant in her first NWHL season. Although she’s only 24, Stecklein has already earned two Olympic medals with Team USA. Over the past half a dozen years she has established herself as one of the best defenders in the game. Stecklein has picked up a league-leading six assists in her first four NWHL games. She also helped the Whitecaps stifle the Riveters offense, which was the best in the league in 2017-18.
One of the first things you might notice about the Whitecaps’ top defensive pair is the height difference between the 6-foot Stecklein and the 5-foot-1 Amanda Boulier. However, it won’t take long for you to get past the disparity in their heights and notice how well Stecklein and Boulier play together.
Boulier, a St. Lawrence University alumna, is one of the NWHL’s best skaters. She proved her versatility last season with the Connecticut Whale by playing both forward and defense. But Jack Brodt, the coach in charge of Minnesota’s defense, knew early on that he wanted her on the blue line.
With Stecklein and her long reach and smooth stride on Minnesota’s left side, Boulier has been unafraid to go on the attack in the offensive zone. Her quick feet have helped the Whitecaps maintain offensive zone pressure and create chances in the transition game. The fleet-footed Boulier already has six shots on net and two goals for Minnesota — both scored from the point on the Riveters’ Katie Fitzgerald — in her first four games of the season. It’s still early, but she’s only one goal shy of her goal total from her rookie season with the Whale last year.
“[Boulier has] got a great shot and it comes off so quick, I don’t think I even saw her release it this time. All of a sudden it was in the net,” Stecklein told The Ice Garden when asked about Boulier’s second goal of the season, scored on Oct. 20. “I’m really, really lucky to be playing with her. I think she’s one of the best D I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with.”
Stecklein’s strength and poise both with and without the puck serve as the perfect compliment for Boulier’s quickness and awareness. Both defenders are exceptional puck-movers, which has helped Minnesota establish a transition game that has already put the rest of the NWHL on notice. Even more importantly, they are a stalwart pair in their own zone and are capable of playing a lot of minutes. Their balanced game and endurance will be a big storyline this year, especially with the Whitecaps’ schedule, which is filled with back-to-back games.