Things have not gone as planned for the Metropolitan Riveters this season. Through 11 games the Riveters have a 3–8–0 record, they’ve been outscored by a margin of 19 goals, and are now in the midst of a goaltending controversy. Those are all big red flags for a team that won the Isobel Cup less than 300 days ago.
Fortunately for the Riveters, their offense came to life in Stamford on Jan. 6. With new goaltender Maria Sorokina in net, the Riveters bested the Connecticut Whale by a score of 6–3. It was the first time that the Riveters offense, which averaged 4.0 goals per game last season, had scored four or more goals in 2018–19. Randy Velischek, the Riveters first year head coach, knew that it was a game his team needed to win.
“You know what, it’s not a ‘maybe’ — it’s an absolute definite,” Velischek told the Ice Garden after the Riveters practice in Newark on Thursday night. “I was looking at our record — losing games in the last minute of games, putting in a lot of effort and not being rewarded — so it was really nice to be rewarded for the effort. I thought it was probably our best overall game of the year.”
It would be easy to dismiss some of the Riveters’ struggles as a result of the change behind the bench. There’s a new coaching staff in town, and that means new systems and, potentially, the growing pains that come with adopting them. After all, the Riveters only get to practice twice a week. But Velischek, who has come under fire from the team’s passionate fan base, doesn’t think that the team’s systems have been or are the issue.
“To be honest I don’t think it’s the system,” Velischek explained. “Every one of these young ladies has played at a high level — whether they’re Olympians, national team players, D-I players, or even D-III players — they’ve all played at a high level. The systems don’t change a lot. If you watch an NHL game there really isn’t a lot of variation. What we do is basically the same thing that the Devils, the Maple Leafs, and the Beauts are doing.”
Instead, the coach attributes the Riveters’ disappointing record to execution, injuries, and constant changes in the lineup — both during games and at practice. There are some players on the team who have hardly been able to practice because of their schedules away from hockey.
“Really, it’s executing,” the coach clarified. “It’s execution and it’s health. If you look at our lineup this year ... the biggest hurdle that Coach Whitman and I have had to handle as a tandem is that every game we’ve had a different lineup, for the most part. That’s either been through injury — we lost [Kelsey] Koelzer for over a month and a half, we lost Courtney Burke for a month and a half. Miye [D’Oench] just showed up and it took her three weeks to get back into play. She’s probably only hitting her stride just now.
“I really believe a lot of those were factors,” Velischek continued. “You never want to make excuses as a coach, but at the end of the day there’s been so much flux in our lineup — whether it’s through injury or players who haven’t played or practiced — but it’s come together more over the holidays. Everybody is getting healthy. We’ve had five or six good practices.”
Another potential explanation for the Riveters’ limited offense this year could be the team’s dearth of left-handed shooters. During the offseason the Riveters lost veteran lefty forwards Bray Ketchum and Harrison Browne to retirement. Now, Rebecca Russo and Rebecca Morse are the only left-handed forwards on this year’s roster, and Morse is a natural defender.
One might think that imbalance would impact the Riveters, especially on the power play, but the head coach doesn’t see it that way.
“Our power play hasn’t really been predicated on the lefty-righty [balance], it’s more a function of we just haven’t clicked,” Velischek explained. “We don’t get enough pucks to the net, we’ve been way too fine [with our passes]. [Amanda] Kessel is one of the best vision players in the league; she sees the game really well. Nobody sees it as well as she does. Having her quarterback, I believe [opposing teams] are reading off of that a little bit and not anticipating a shot.”
Velischek believes that the key to the power play’s success is players moving their feet more, getting shots through, and moving the puck around faster. He wants his team to buy in. Through the first 11 games of the season, the Riveters’ power play is ranked second in the league, but it’s still an underwhelming 9.5 percent. Last season, that power play — without Kessel — had a 25.0 percent success rate. There’s potential for it, and the offense as a whole, to be a lot better, and the coach knows it.
“Our lines are clicking,” Velischek beamed. “I really like Miye, Alexa Gruschow, and Russo — that’s sort of a new combination for us. They’ve been really good together. There’s good chemistry. Miye’s fit in well there on the off-wing with Kessel and [Madison] Packer.”
The first-year head coach of the Riveters believes that he has the best six defenders in the league. He also believes that the competition in the goal crease — which recently got a lot more interesting after the Sorokina trade — is a good thing. However, there is a big decision looming. In the next two months Velischek will have to decide which goalie he will want between the pipes for the Riveters’ first playoff game.
“It is in my mind, for sure,” Velischek admitted. “This is literally a three-way battle. Obviously, Sarah [Bryant] is a part of this as somebody who pushes her teammates, but really we have our top three goaltenders [Katie Fitzgerald, Kimberly Sass, and Sorokina], and they’re going to battle for that top spot.”
Deciding who to start for the remaining five games of the regular season is no small task. Last week, Velischek felt that it was an obvious choice to give Sorokina an opportunity to play against her former team. But after Thursday night’s practice, he was still uncertain who would be getting the start in Buffalo on Saturday.
“Really it’s a little bit going by the gut,” the coach shared. “We have quality goaltending. Anything that’s happened this year hasn’t been because of our goaltenders. It’s a team. We haven’t scored at key times and when we did score the goaltending was maybe not where it should have been. So it’s been a whole bunch of different factors involved in our so-called lack of success.”
Today, the Riveters will put their 1–0–0 record in the new year to the test against the Buffalo Beauts. The last time these two teams met, the Riveters ended the game by lifting the Isobel Cup. But that was last year’s team. Wiseman’s team. The new coach believes that the Riveters have more than enough talent to beat any team in the league. The Beauts, who have outscored the competition 18–5 in their last five games and have the best goaltending in the league, will definitely provide Velischek’s Riveters with a big test.