Cup hangover is not to blame for the Metropolitan Riveters season. The reigning champions of the NWHL have barely shown a trace of the characteristics that swiftly develop over the first three seasons. They have only won 2 out of their 10 games. A once unstoppable offense that scored 64 goals in 16 games last season has only produced 17 thus far. Conversely, the total goals against are higher in these ten games than they were all of last season. Lackluster special teams have led to the same amount of shorthanded goals scored against them as power-play goals produced.
The Riveters play like the score has been decided by the first intermission. Having spent over half the season playing with this attitude, no one is holding their breath for an Isobel Cup repeat in March. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to redeem and plenty of time to do so.
With six games left in the regular season, the Riveters must set realistic goals to close the season positively and end their identity crisis. Catching up to the Whitecaps, Beauts, or Pride is far from likely. In measurable attributes, the Riveters should aim to win the newly instated wild-card game, lowering their goals against per game to below three, and raising their shot percentage to above eight and a half. Proving that they’re trending upwards, that they can be the physical and relentless team they were only eleven games ago is necessary to prove both current and future players that the Riveters are worth playing for.
Priority One: Offense
"Offense is the best defense" is a fact in modern day hockey. The Beauts sit at the best in the league defensively with a below two goals-against average and the lowest amount of shots allowed. Despite this, they are third in the standings behind the Pride and Whitecaps who dominate offensively, averaging over three goals a game. A big part of the Riveters identity revolved around rapid offense by elite goal scorers still present on the roster, and rekindling that is bound to rekindle success in the NWHL.
The Metropolitan Riveters currently have the most shots on goals attempted but the lowest amount of goals actually made off those shots. One may consider that just bad luck, but this is the result of predictable and almost robotic plays in the offensive zone that failed to generate quality chances or energy. There’s no motion or rotation when setting up in their opponents' end, making it easy to close off any shooting or passing lane. It’s especially noticeable on the ineffective power play.
The sparks of excellence this season and past success come from wearing the opponent down. When players are comfortable and trusting in their game plan they can get creative enough to produce and diversify motion. Traffic forms in front of the goalie, their opponents are drawn into the middle creating more space along the boards, it’s harder for the other team to get a change in, and the Riveters gain momentum. Most of the sparse offensive success this season, including the majority of goals by leading scorer Audra Richards, have come from a front of the net situation.
For an effective offensive strategy to work, solidifying a lineup is a must. This season Riveters’ have been drastically changing the forward lines and defensive pairs from game to game, preventing any chemistry or comfort from growing. The players currently have new systems and new management with limited practice time and only sixteen games to get used to. Consistency and maintaining player positions when creating lines would smooth over that transition.
The first line of Packer-Russo-Kessel is one of the only reoccurring lines we’ve seen with the spark to show for their time together, including four goals from Madison Packer. D’Oench-Gruschow-Richards played during the Riveters second and most recent win this season against the Connecticut Whale and should be the go-to second line for the team, especially considering that game featured a hat trick from Richards. Lewicki is playing her first season with the Riveters organization and her speed is a huge asset, the smart move would be keeping her on the wing with Lawler at center for a combination of two fast players.
Priority Two: Defense
At the beginning of the season, the coach of the Riveters stated that they were not a goal-scoring team, and would need to focus on defense. They currently have the most goals against in the league. So much for that.
For a fast roster with strong players, the strategy is restrained and quick to retreat. They focus purely on the puck itself, trying to execute plays in a textbook manner only to be blindsided by the opposing team. It’s evident in the neutral zone, where there’s never more than two Riveter players at a time. They keep one player pressuring the puck carrier while the rest retreat to the offensive zone waiting to swarm the puck like bees. Until a good pass is made to a player they forgot to cover, and a goal is scored.
The NWHL is notable for back and forth games with quick transition, but a modified version of classic defensive traps in the neutral zone could be the first step for the Riveters. Equipped with smart players able to take away space and many speed skaters, a system such as one-three-one could work. Have defensive players pressuring puck carriers while a fast forward stays towards the defensive zone in case of a dump and chase.
Once again, a set lineup would help create the team dynamic needed for this. With defenders diverse in skill sets and size, the Riveters have a lot to work with. One opportunity would be putting the secure leader Michelle Picard with Jenny Ryan, a dynamite player that can generate offense as well. One of Ryan’s problems this season has been discipline with staying out of the box which playing with the captain may solve.
Part Three: Management and Leadership
It’s not unlikely or unreasonable to think the Riveters look lost on the ice this season. Over the summer they were able to keep most of the championship-winning roster but lost several veterans, including captain and incredible leader Ashley Johnston. They also experienced their first coaching change, controversially hiring former New Jersey Devil Randy Velischek with a less than impressive resume.
Ten games in, Velischek’s lack of professional experience and knowledge in women’s hockey is adding gasoline to the fire. Line changes seem more like guesses when three centers end up on a line together. Quotes about how the Riveters are not a goal scoring team after a handful of games, despite the roster containing many of last seasons point leaders, looks like a lack of understanding both of team and the NWHL itself. The Riveters have spent their last three seasons using to learn their tools, skills, and lineup to create success. It is unfair for them to have to wait until Velischek figures out what they already know.
It doesn’t just effect on ice play, it affects the overall morale of the team. The framework was there for the Riveters, filled with a roster of players who showed they know what it takes to win and did so in the previous season. Being forced into a mold not suitable for the players or the NWHL has led to a losing attitude.
It has been too easy this season for the Metropolitan Riveters to be worn down. They score more in the first period than in the second or third combined, with their shot count going down and penalties being taken going up. Finding that winning mentality, whether through an effective cyclic unit on the power play or a strong plan to block zone entry, can lead to more relentless play for the full sixty minutes. Coach Velischek should solidify lines and defensive pairs by examining the skillsets of each player as he’s seen over the past three months as well as by sitting down with veteran players from season one. Systems that are being put in place should be adjusted to the talents of the Riveters’ roster and prioritize offense first. Knowing the coaches respect them and are working with their specific skill sets, the players have more confidence in themselves and the plays they’re expected to make within the game.
Of the last six games, four are against a Buffalo Beauts team that the Riveters have struggled to beat in the past. The first game of 2019 will be against the Whale, who the Riveters will most likely face in the wild-card game. The remaining game is against potential first-place finishers, the Boston Pride, who are one of two teams the Riveters have beat this season.
If the Riveters are going to make the most of this, they are going to have to actively fight for it.
Thank you to Even-Strength for the NWHL statistics and Riveters coverage here/in other fan posts