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After a three week break for Four Nations (Go USA!!) I was interested to see how the Riveters would do once NWHL action resumed. They entered the break on a high note, getting their first win of the season against the Pride with a dramatic "three seconds until OT" goal. The Rivs looked improved in that game; not stellar, but they played with more intensity, and getting the win helped smooth over some of the faults in their play. Though if we're being honest, Russo's sheer desire to stop the losing streak may have helped too. Unfortunately, after Sunday's match against the Whale, it looks like the Rivs have fallen back into hard times.
Time for some Riv Rants.
~ In my first Rants and Raves, I mentioned abandoned speedsters and the tethered defenders. That critique applies to this game as well.
~ Can't get out of their own zone. While the Rivs did better blocking shots, by the time they could clear the puck it was time for a line change. It's the same issue they have had all season. Whenever the puck is in their zone all five players crowd around the net protecting Fitzy. The defending style looks exactly like a penalty kill, except they’re at even strength. While this will decrease your opponent’s SOG, there's no way to control the play, and the Rivs are constantly reacting rather than engaging. The Rivs need to be more aggressive controlling the puck and leading the play. They need to play with more pep in their step and put pressure on their opponents.
~ The Rivs looked good on their first power play in the second period, with strong pressure, and Koelzer was allowed to let it fly. However, during those two minutes Räisänen was standing on her head for all shot attempts. After that single good PP, the Riveters completely fell apart whenever they had a player advantage. The volume of short-handed opportunities the Rivs gave to the Whale in this game was impressive, in a bad way. Coach, please try 4F and 1D. The two defender technique is not working. I’m not sure it ever has, in the NWHL! (Also getting called offside on a power play? Not good.)
~ Gross mismanagement of players. Why was D'Oench not played? She's healthy, willing, and able. Yes, she missed the start of the season working, but why punish the team when you can use her play-making ability? Ditto Burke. In a league with a 16 games, it’s hard to see the logic in holding your star players out of a game when they are healthy and available. Especially with Kessel out with an injury. Also, the second line was a head scratcher. While the Gruschow, Lawler, and Richards line did get the only Rivs goal of the game, Richards was the only noticeable player of the three, and her goal was unassisted. Overall the line is awkward because all three players are centers, and they're stifling each other. Lawler, usually a very noticeable player and a dynamite on the ice, has been struggling to break through this season. Gruschow, the league's 2017-18 MVP should not be pointless almost halfway through season four. One player having a rough patch is understandable, but there are so many returning players who aren't playing like they can and should. This is where it may be less of a player problem and more a systems problem. Perhaps time to shift away from defense first and find some better line combos. At this point there is nothing to lose throwing together different players to see what clicks. Though, I would suggest not putting together three centers.
~ Don't play for overtime points. The Rivs visibly slowed down in the remaining minutes of the third period. I turned to my neighbor and said "It looks like they're playing for OT", and then the Whale scored the game-winning goal. Don't settle, attack!
Riv Raves ... not going to lie, this game showcased everything not working with the team, however there were some good moments in the game.
~ The second period was the best period for the Rivs. For the most part, even though they were following their opponents lead, the Rivs picked up on the energy the Whale brought to the second period and had a few good scoring opportunities.
~ There was better attention made to prevent shots from getting to Fitzgerald.
~ Räisänen and Mrázová were outstanding. Even this bitter Riveters fan knows when to give credit where credit is due. The Whale played better all game and got a well-deserved W.
During the broadcast, Nash and Richards both provided interesting quotes. Not that they should be intensely scrutinized, but they're interesting to get some idea of what's going on behind the scenes. Before the game, Nash, who hadn't yet played in the regular season due to coaching responsibilities, said they kept going over the systems before the game. Then Richards during second intermission said the best defense is a good offense. Unless my eyes are deceiving me, the offense is sorely lacking in the Riveters current system. In fact, I think there's a major identity crisis going on with the Riveters. Before the season starts your coach is quoted saying that the team isn't going to be high scoring, then there's a player saying the best defense is a good offense, and all season the actual on-ice play is a team with weak defensive who can't get the puck out of their own zone ... one starts to suspect there's a major disconnect between the players and the coaching staff.
So what's going on? With so little info available fans can only guess, but I think a good starting point is getting some real honest communication going between the coaches and the players. The players need to let the coach know what they can do, and the coach needs to listen and be willing to try something new. It would also be interesting to know if Kate Whitman Annis and Randy Velischek are on the same page. I'd hate to see a repeat of the S1 Whale coaching situation, but weirder things have happened.
I look forward to the rematch against the Whale next Sunday. With a healthy and complete Riveters lineup, it should be a good game, and I would like to see how the team plays with Burke and D'Oench back. Also, if D'Oench and Gruschow aren't on the same line there will be words. :)