The Hunt for Isobel, Episode IV is about to begin, and the Metropolitan Riveters are filled with a new hope that they may repeat as Isobel Cup Champs.
The Riveters took the NWHL by storm in their third season, roaring out to an 11-0 start and capturing their first Isobel Cup. Their offense clicked from the get-go, their defense suffocated opponents and ran a tremendous transition game to allow their speedy forwards to get to work.
The roster included the league’s Most Valuable Player and leading scorer Alexa Gruschow, goal-scoring champion Madison Packer, assists leader and defender of the year Courtney Burke, and Katie Fitzgerald in goal. If not for an incredible second half by Buffalo’s Amanda Leveille, Fitzgerald would have easily run away with her second consecutive Goaltender of the Year award, as she tied for league leads in wins (12) and led in goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.920).
Above all else, the Riveters were consistent. Even when top player Miye D’Oench went down with an injury, Chad Wiseman’s Riveters dominated most every statistical category throughout the season.
Perhaps the biggest change in the Riveters’ makeup is not on the ice, but rather behind the bench. Former New Jersey Devils defenseman Randy Velischek is the new head coach, with Kate Whitman Annis brought in as an assistant.
Youth abounds on this Riveters team with an influx of rookies on the roster replacing big-name veterans.
Acquisitions: Amanda Kessel, F (re-acquired after Olympic year), Kristin Lewicki, F (BUF), Lexi Slattery, D (rookie), Alexa Aramburu, F (rookie), Chelsea Ziadie, D (rookie), Audra Richards, F (rookie), Fiona McKenna, F (rookie)
Departures: Ashley Johnston, D (retired), Bray Ketchum, F (retired), Tatiana Rafter, F (Russia), Harrison Browne, F (retired), Hillary Crowe, F (Free agent), Cheeky Herr, F (FA), Lauren Wash, F (FA), Lindsey Hylwa, F (FA)
Players to watch
Amanda Kessel: Kessel returns to the Riveters an Olympic hero. Before Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson’s “Oops I Did it Again” shootout winner, there was Kessel, beating Shannon Szabados to even up the score. Without Kessel, the medal hanging around the Americans’ necks might have had a different tint.
Kessel had four goals and 14 assists in eight regular-season games with the Riveters in 2016-17. On a line with Janine Weber and D’Oench, Kessel’s trio quickly became one of the most fearsome in the league. D’Oench registered 14 points in 18 games that season, while Weber tallied 22 points including 10 goals.
It should be noted that even though her performance remained solid with Kessel sidelined with an injury that year, Weber’s production dropped off steeply when she joined the Boston Pride the following season.
D’Oench, meanwhile, blossomed into one of the best players in the league. If not for an injury that robbed her of seven games, she may have challenged Gruschow for MVP honors.
Ketchum’s retirement opens the door for a Kessel-Gruschow-D’Oench top line. However, that reunion won’t come to fruition until November, as D’Oench will be away from the team working on a political campaign. That, coupled with a new coach, could mean some line juggling.
All the same, a fully healthy Kessel, now adorned in gold, can do some serious damage.
Speaking of someone who could potentially replace D’Oench on the top line...
Rebecca Russo: Kristin Lewicki won the Fastest Skater challenge at the 2018 NWHL skills competition at 13.41 seconds. Rebecca Russo was victorious the year prior at 12.75 seconds.
The two fastest skaters in the league are now teammates.
Russo found herself on a very successful line with Erika Lawler and Packer last season. With both players returning, it will be quite the offensive arms race between Metro and Buffalo. Lewicki would be an entertaining option to slot in with Russo, if only just to watch their wheels in tandem.
There’s more to Russo’s game than pure speed. She’s also got silky-smooth mitts and a lethal shot. Russo is far from a one-trick pony, especially when she’s able to flash those skills at once like her playoff goal against Connecticut in March.
Audra Richards: Richards is perhaps the most intriguing rookie to join the Riveters this season. Twice the leading scorer for the University of Maine Black Bears, Richards has an opportunity to make an impact right away. She has a legitimate chance to be an impact depth scorer, especially since Velischek has intimated that Richards could join Russo and Packer on a line.
Richards may be young (24), but she has a coach’s pedigree having served as bench boss for Hastings High School varsity girls hockey. She is a competitor and has the touch of a goal scorer, having netted 45 goals and 70 points in 135 games at Maine.
Games to watch
Home Opener vs Minnesota | Oct. 20, 2:00 p.m. EST at Prudential Center
The Riveters will be holding their home opener at Prudential Center for the second season in a row. It will be their third meeting with the Minnesota Whitecaps. Given that the Whitecaps are newcomers to the NWHL, it’s a good opportunity to see the potential formulation of bad blood.
The Riveters will be unveiling their championship banner before the game.
Pittsburgh Game vs Connecticut | Dec. 2, 2:00 p.m. at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex
Pittsburgh and the Penguins continue their support of the NWHL by hosting a regular season matchup between the Riveters and the Connecticut Whale. Kessel netted a hat trick in the league All-Star Game at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in 2017. What will her next trip to the Steel City have in store?
She will still be the #BestKessel in Pittsburgh.
The Isobel Cup Rematch | Jan. 12, 2:00 p.m. at HarborCenter
Buffalo and Metro do not meet until January. After that, four of the Riveters’ final five games are against the Beauts. If that doesn’t set up one heck of a final push for what could be the top seed in the league, I don’t know what does.
Plus, there’s the added intrigue of an Olympic rematch between Kessel and the Canadian goaltender she bested in the Golden Shootout, Shannon Szabados.
The Isobel Cup remains the Riveters’ to lose. Their roster is loaded at every position, and their coaching vacancy has at long last been filled. Buffalo is Public Enemy Number One. The Beauts loaded their roster with Olympians and league veterans. They want a fourth consecutive Isobel Cup Final and a second title.
The NWHL’s best rivalry is about to get even hotter.
The Riveters will be a must-watch team in 2018-19. The key to their success will come in their start. Not playing the Beauts until the final five games means that the Riveters have to jump on the likes of Connecticut, Boston and Minnesota early if they want a shot at the league’s top seed.
That will be a test for Randy Velischek. Metro’s new coach was hired very close to the start of the season. It’s his first experience coaching women’s hockey. Their best offensive player was not on the roster last year, and one of their other top players will miss a month of playing time. Lines will be juggled. Even though most of their core remains in tact from their championship season, cohesion will be key.