Last weekend the 2017-18 NWHL regular season came to a close. The Metropolitan Riveters finished on top of the standings with a 13-3-0 record, but the Buffalo Beauts were not far behind at 12-4-0. The Riveters enter the 2018 Isobel Cup Playoffs as the first seed, but because of the last chapter of the regular season they may no longer be the favorites.
The Beauts defeated the Riveters three times in a span of four weeks and are riding a 10-game winning streak into the postseason. Will the defending Isobel Cup Champions become the first NWHL team to kiss Lady Isobel’s Cup twice? Will the Riveters finally win in the playoffs? Can Boston find its game when it matters most? Will the Whale shock the world? Let’s look at this weekend’s games.
Metropolitan Riveters vs. Connecticut Whale
Sunday March 18 at 7:00 p.m.
11/11: Riveters 5, Whale 1
12/3: Riveters 4, Whale 0
1/7: Riveters 6, Whale 1
1/27: Riveters 3, Whale 2 (OT)
2/18: Riveters 4, Whale 2
Alexa Gruschow - Gruschow led both her team and the league in scoring this year. The second-year star put up 22 points — 18 of which were primary — in 16 games for the Riveters. Those, my friends, are MVP numbers. Gruschow is a player that the Whale have to find a way to slow down on Sunday, but that will be easier said than done now that the Riveters have Miye D’Oench back in the lineup.
“Alexa the Great” had two goals and seven assists in five games against the Whale this season. Good grief.
Emily Fluke - Fans and players around the league know that Fluke has a gift for getting under the skin of opposing teams, but she also knows how to make things happen in the offensive zone. The rookie forward had four goals and seven assists in 14 games for Connecticut this year, making her the only Whale skater with more than 10 points in 2017-18.
Fluke struggled to get on the board against the Riveters this year. She had just one secondary assist at even strength in five meetings.
Blue Line Leaders
Courtney Burke - Burke had a breakout year in Newark. The second-year All-Star scored two goals and picked up a staggering 17 assists in 16 games — which is the new high water mark for points in an NWHL season for a defender. She has been a force all year long on the Riveters’ top pair with rookie defender Jenny Ryan.
Elena Orlando - There’s not a lot of flashiness in Orlando’s game, but she’s one of the league’s better shutdown defenders. The former Riveter played a ton of minutes this year for the Whale and led the league in blocked shots. She’s as tough as they come, but knows how to apply her strength without taking penalties. Orlando is the heart and soul of Connecticut’s blue line. She’s a battler through and through.
Between the Pipes
Katie Fitzgerald - The 2017 Goaltender of the Year gave quite an encore in her second year in the NWHL. Fitzgerald led the league in save percentage (.920) and lost only three games. The NWHL’s tallest goaltender had a couple of rough games in February, but on the whole Fitzgerald was nothing short of exceptional this year.
Sydney Rossman - Rossman’s numbers don’t impress at first blush, but there’s a lot more to goaltending than stats. The Whale’s rookie netminder almost always found a way to keep her team in games this year. Rossman started in all 16 games this year for Connecticut and she proved time and again that she has the skill to steal a game.
The Riveters are heavily favored in this showdown, but they can’t afford to take the Whale lightly. Connecticut plays an excellent defensive game and if they stay out of the box they could surprise the home team. The big question for the Whale will be whether or not they can score two or more goals and stay out of the box. If they can’t, it’s hard to imagine them finding a way to upset a team that outscored them 22-6 in the regular season.
The Riveters feel confident heading into Sunday night’s game for good reason. They finally have D’Oench back and the offense is starting to heat up again. If they stick to the script, they should soon be celebrating their first postseason win.
Buffalo Beauts vs Boston Pride
Saturday March 17 at 5:30 p.m.
11/11: Beauts 5, Pride 3
12/2: Pride 3, Beauts 2
1/6: Beauts 3, Pride 2 (OT)
1/27: Beauts 1, Pride 0 (SO)
2/18: Beauts 6, Pride 2
Kourtney Kunichika, Hayley Scamurra, Maddie Elia - That’s right, the Beauts had three forwards finish the year with 14 points in 2017-18. Kunichika, Scamurra, and Elia are very different players. Kunichika, the longest-tenured Beaut, is a primary assist machine and one of the league’s most underrated stars. Scamurra, a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, is a sniper through and through. She led Buffalo with seven goals and an average of 4.5 shots per game this season. Elia is a downhill skater who plays hard-nosed hockey and excels in the transition game. She’s one of the league’s biggest forwards and also one of its greatest agitators.
Kunichika led Buffalo’s big trio with two goals and four assists against the Pride this season.
Jillian Dempsey - Dempsey is one of the best all-around forwards in the women’s game. In addition to leading the Pride’s offense this year she was also second among NWHL forwards in blocked shots. Dempsey finished third in the league in even-strength goals and led her team in both goals and assists. Clearly, she wears the captain’s “C” well.
The Pride’s captain had two goals and two assists in five meetings with the Beauts this year.
Blue Line Leaders
Sarah Casorso - Casorso led the Beauts’ blue line with nine points — all of them assists — in 15 games this year. The Canadian defender stands out for her play in the defensive zone, but she’s also established herself as a reliable puck-mover. She and All-Star Lisa Chesson both had exceptional seasons for Buffalo.
Alyssa Gagliardi - Gagliardi had a tremendous regular season. The third-year NWHL star led Boston’s blue line in points for the first time in her career thanks in large part to picking up three primary assists on the power play. But Gagliardi is best known for her play in her own zone. She plays a mammoth amount of minutes and is always tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top line and power play unit.
Between the Pipes
Mandy Leveille - Leveille truly established herself as a star in her second NWHL season. She started in every game for the Beauts this year and posted a .918 save percentage. Leveille has been lights-out during Buffalo’s 10-game winning streak. If she’s on her game on Saturday the Pride will be in for a long night.
Brittany Ott - For a time this season there was some discussion over whether or not Ott might lose her starting role to Brianna Laing, but the NWHL’s first ever Goaltender of the Year is still Boston’s top goalie. The All-Star captain was the only goalie in the league with two shutouts this year. She’s also been outstanding in her last two outings against the Beauts.
How can you bet against the Beauts in this one? Buffalo hasn’t lost a game since the Pegulas bought the team and they have outscored Boston 10-4 in their last three meetings. The Beauts have a deep, dynamic offense and a ruthlessly effective forecheck. Boston knows that they have their hands full with the defending Isobel Cup Champions.
“[The Beauts] work really hard, they know their systems, and they’re very disciplined,” Gagliardi told The Ice Garden. “In the last couple of weeks they’ve put a lot of pressure on the Riveters. They cause turnovers and they bury their chances.”
The Pride’s veterans remember last year’s defeat in the Isobel Cup Final well. But will their collective experience be enough of an edge to put an end to Buffalo’s unbelievable run? We’ll soon find out. This is must-watch women’s hockey.