Don’t you just love parity?
If you do, then this has been the season for you. Most every game has been competitive. No team is unbeatable. No team is a doormat. That’s never been clearer than this past weekend, when the Boston Pride dismantled the undefeated Minnesota Whitecaps not once, but twice. Then the Connecticut Whale took down the Riveters for the second time in three weeks in front of a packed Pittsburgh crowd.
It’s officially December and no one spot in the standings is set in stone. Let’s take a look at who’s hot, who’s not, and who to keep your eye on this weekend.
Trending up: Katie Burt, BOS | 2-0, 62/65 saves vs MIN
On the rare occasions I happen to be right in my predictions, I feel it is appropriate to take a victory lap. So let me lace up my New Balance, cuz it’s trotting time.
Katie Burt stood on her head all weekend against the Minnesota Whitecaps to hand them their first and second losses of the season. After four years of doling out losses to Minnesotan schools at Boston College, Burt returned to the State of Hockey and shut down an elite Whitecaps offense all weekend. In front of two sold-out crowds, Burt stopped 62 of 65 shots as the Pride rolled on to 5-1 and 7-2 victories, respectively.
It was a much needed bounce-back weekend for Burt. After posting an impressive 4-1 win against the Buffalo Beauts two weeks ago, Burt was beaten five times on 20 shots the following afternoon. The rookie needed to prove she could handle back-to-backs at the pro level, and she did with style.
It has taken a few games for Burt to truly find her footing as a professional, but now that she has, the league has been put on notice. She is now second in the league in wins (5), third in goals-against average (2.14) and fifth in save percentage (.913).
Trending down: The Riveters’ defense | 4-0 loss to CTW
There are two very different ways to view Sunday’s contest in Pittsburgh. One can either be ecstatic that the Connecticut Whale now sit in fourth place in the league and can potentially leapfrog into third with a win over the Buffalo Beauts on Saturday night.
The other is bemoaning that the Metropolitan Riveters are now 2-7-0 and the problems that have plagued them all season long just are not going away.
Meeri Räisänen would not be denied a victory on her birthday, turning aside all 31 Riveters shots to earn the first Whale shutout since Jamie Leonoff in the 2016 playoffs. Despite commanding the pace of offensive play for the majority of the game and 13 of 15 players registering at least one shot on goal, the Rivs suffered yet another crucial loss.
Why? Defensive breakdowns in front.
Let’s look at the Whale’s first goal. Taylor Marchin winds up a shot from the high slot. Courtney Burke is tied up with a forward in front of Katie Fitzgerald. This is an immediate problem, as allowing the opponent to take Fitzy’s eyes away as been an issue all season. Further obstructing her eyeline is Rebecca Russo at the near hashmark, who is attempting to block the shot. If she were to take an extra stride or two towards the shooter, she would be in a less obtrusive spot for her goaltender and a better position to break up a slap-pass to the near circle, where Connecticut also has a shooter waiting.
But the true breakdown lies on the far side. Erika Lawler is floating in space next to Russo. She is not aligned to block the shot, and the Whale have been moving the puck along the perimeter for a full six seconds. Jenny Ryan, meanwhile, has allowed Nina Rodgers to slip past her unimpeded for a chance at the net.
The result is four Riveter defenders defending a trapezoid on the ice that has prevented neither the puck nor the opposition from getting to the net. Fitzgerald makes the initial save with her right leg pad, but Rodgers has a point-blank look at a yawning net-mouth.
A lost player in front also resulted in the Whale’s second goal. Alexa Gruschow (circled above) over-committed on a loose puck in the corner, leaving Kiira Dosdall to defend two players in front. One sets a screen, the other scores an easy rebound goal.
There’s a reason the four worst +/- rates in the league are Riveters. Gruschow, Lawler and Dosdall rank first, second, and third-worst respectively. Surprising, considering all three are veterans of the league and team. Unsurprising, given how broken their schematics have been from the jump this season.
Trending up: Gigi Marvin, BOS | 3 goals, 2 assists, 6 SOGs in 2 games vs MIN
Gigi Marvin abused the Minnesota Whitecaps’ defense all weekend long with one of the most dominant performances from any player in the NWHL this season. Marvin potted a pair of goals Saturday on five shots on goal, then followed up that performance with a goal and two assists in a 7-2 thumping Sunday afternoon.
Marvin was a Whitecap herself, once upon a time. After graduating as captain of the University of Minnesota, she put up 27 goals and 14 assists in 17 games as a Whitecap in the Western Women’s Hockey League in 2010-11.
Perhaps you should consider marking Gigi Marvin. pic.twitter.com/N88dNCzhGf— Eleni (@strongforecheck) December 2, 2018
The Warroad, MN native put on a show in her homecoming, breezing by defenders and moving the puck at will. It’s the kind of confidence Boston Pride fans have been longing to see from a forward since the dominant teams of 2015-16 and 16-17. With the Olympians away last year, Boston lacked a certain snarl to their offensive game.
With Marvin back in the fold (as well as Haley Skarupa), the Pride have the confident puck-carriers they were missing last year.
The Pride will be looking to extend their winning streak to three games Sunday afternoon against the Riveters.
Trending down: Amanda Leveille, MIN | 8 goals allowed on 36 SOG in 2 games vs BOS
So...what happened here?
Amanda Leveille has been lights out all year. Perhaps to be expected, however, the Whitecaps struggled in their first regular season game in over a month. Leveille allowed eight goals on 36 shots in her two combined starts, getting the hook in Sunday’s match for backup Julie Friend.
This is just the fourth time that Leveille has been pulled from a game in her NWHL career, and the first time since March 5th, 2017. Leveille split time with Brianne McLaughlin in an unspectacular regular season that eventually led to a miraculous run to the Isobel Cup Championship.
So what gives? Well, chalk it up to rust more than anything else. The Whitecaps had a few tune-up games in the interim against Lindenwood University’s women’s hockey team, but that hardly compares to real NWHL action. Considering it’s another three weeks before the Whitecaps play again, they will have plenty of time to put this weekend behind them.
They will need to come out sharper next time. That includes reigning Goaltender of the Year Amanda Leveille.
Trending up: Kendall Coyne Schofield, MIN | 18 SOGs in 2 games vs BOS
There was one player in a black Minnesota uniform that hadn’t missed a beat, though. That would be Kendall Coyne Schofield, who lodged a season-best 11 shots on goal in Saturday’s game against the Pride. She followed it up with seven more on Sunday.
And she didn’t get a point for her efforts.
Come on, now! What in the name of PDO is going on here? Coyne Schofield is shooting just 2.3%, the worst such percentage of any player with at least one goal in the league. She leads the league in shots with 43 and it isn’t even really that close. Teammates Jonna Curtis and Kate Schipper have taken half the number of shots that she has and have scored four goals a piece.
Coyne Schofield’s only goal of the year was an empty-netter.
Something has to give for her.
Kendall Coyne Schofield is averaging 7.16 SOG/GP through six games this season. She had 18 shots against Boston in two games this weekend. She has just one goal (an empty-netter) thus far. #NWHL— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) December 3, 2018
The flood gates are going to open. They simply have to. And when they do, I would suspect the Caps will be running away with a few more games.