The Metropolitan Riveters earned the right to fly west by besting the Connecticut Whale 5–2 in the 4v5 play-in game Thursday night. Awaiting them will be the top-seeded Minnesota Whitecaps, hungry for their first NWHL playoff victory.
The Whitecaps burned through all four of their games against the Riveters in the first four matchups of the season. Minnesota took all four, outscoring Metro 18–6. Their closest call came in Round 3, held at the Prudential Center. Tied 3–3 nearing the halfway point of the third period, Hannah Brandt put the ’Caps on top to stay. Jonna Curtis tacked on an empty netter to spoil the Rivs’ banner-raising ceremony.
Players to watch
Whitecaps — Hannah Brandt: More than half of Brandt’s points this season came against the Metropolitan Riveters. Brandt, once of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, racked up three goals and three assists in their four matchups. Two of those goals were eventual gamewinners, while one of her assists came shorthanded. Metro positions their defenders at the very top of the offensive zone, making it near impossible to find a quality shooting lane and often forcing errant passes laterally from point to point. If the Whitecaps’ speedy forecheck can go puck-hawking, expect players like Brandt and Kendall Coyne Schofield to spring some breakaways.
Whitecaps — Lee Stecklein: Another former Golden Gopher, Stecklein comes alive against the Metropolitan Riveters. Stecklein roared out to a tremendous start this season, collecting six assists in four games. However, she only managed three points in her next 12 games. Perhaps a rematch with the Riveters will spark something in the defender.
Riveters — Amanda Kessel: Noticing a trend of Gophers yet? Kessel had three assists in four games against the Whitecaps, one of only two Riveters to muster three points in their season series (the other being Madison Packer). Metro will need their best player to perform like it Sunday to counteract Minnesota’s speed and skill up and down the lineup, especially after she had a quiet evening against Connecticut on Thursday.
Riveters — Katie Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald ended the regular season on a high note, turning aside 40 shots earning a shootout victory. The Whitecaps gave Fitzy fits this season, though, scoring 16 goals on 91 shots (.824 save percentage). She turned aside 24 of 26 shots against the Whale in the play-in game, sharpening up after allowing a goal on the fourth shot of the game. While she has turned a corner since her struggles early in the season, the Riveters will need every brick in the Wall to be solid and sturdy.
Storylines to follow
Road scoring in Minnesota: As the No. 1 seed, the Whitecaps have home ice advantage through the entire Isobel Cup Playoffs, should they make it to the Finals. This creates a world of havoc for the other three remaining teams in the NWHL.
The Pride are the only team that put up more than two goals in a single game in Minnesota this season. Metropolitan opened their season by traveling out to visit the ’Caps, serving as the league’s guinea pigs in visiting the new location. They proceeded to notch only one goal in two games, getting outscored 7–1 in the process.
To regurgitate some figures from this week’s Stock Report: Minnesota had a 2.00 goals-against average at home this season. When their two game, 12-allowed anomaly against Boston is removed from the equation, that number drops to 0.67.
Fresh legs will help suffocate the opposition, as if their natural speed and puck pressure were not enough.
Will the real Riveters please stand up? A tumultuous season has careened to this point, screeching and wailing the whole way. Much of this season’s hardship can be considered erased with a slew of great performances Sunday afternoon. Alexa Gruschow was invisible in the regular season but was all over the ice Thursday night against the Whale, netting two goals on five shots, giving her four playoff points in four career games. Not to mention the dramatic airborne gamewinner in last year’s final against the Beauts.
Packer is a career point-per-game player in the postseason, though she was in clear pain after a slash to the hand Thursday. Kessel has an assist in two career playoff games as a Riveter and was a bit of a non-factor against Connecticut.
Defense running the show: Minnesota has two of the three Defender of the Year finalists on their roster in Stecklein and Amanda Boulier. If Riveters head coach Randy Velischek were smart, he would take a page from the Whitecaps’ book and let his defenders activate the play in the offensive zone. He ought to allow his blue liners to skate and take chances, since he certainly has the personnel to do so.
The first two Riveters goals on Thursday were scored off plays in deep, the first being a Courtney Burke shot from the far circle after skating out from behind the net, the second being a Jenny Ryan carry-in, once more skating behind the net and feeding Gruschow for a one-timer goal.
Metro will need to match the Whitecaps’ defensive creativity and change things up from the predictable breakouts. Skate, carry the puck in deep, and let the ice open up.
TRIA Rink is going to be loud. Very, very loud. The game sold out in 26 hours, a new NWHL record. It’s going to be a lively atmosphere, one that the Whitecaps are not going to squander.
Minnesota is too fast and too skilled for this Riveters team to handle.
FINAL: Whitecaps 4, Riveters 1.