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NWHL Stock Report: New Year’s Resolutions

Teams that resolved to improve in 2019 made a big statement over the weekend

Michelle Jay

If there were two teams that desperately needed to make a resolution or two to improve in 2019, it would be the two teams that emerged victorious this past weekend.

The Buffalo Beauts, who removed their head coach mid-season due to inconsistency with a loaded roster, blew out the first-place Boston Pride 5-0 on home ice. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Riveters bottled up their frustrations of a lackluster 2018 (well, second half of 2018, anyway) and unleashed them on the Connecticut Whale, exploding for a 6-3 road win.

With a big weekend of games that for the first time will feature all five teams in action, let’s take a look at who’s hot, who’s not and who to keep an eye on coming up.

Trending up: Amanda Kessel, MET | 5 assists in 6-3 win vs CTW
HOT TAKE INCOMING, Y’ALL: Amanda Kessel is good at hockey. *ducks*

...oh, that was common knowledge? I see. Ahem. As you were, then.

Amanda Kessel is a stellar playmaker, as evidenced by her performance Sunday afternoon against the Connecticut Whale. She set a league record by notching four primary assists in her five-point day. Kessel has always been a pass-first player, and her ability to set up immediate scoring chances is what has made her such a valuable part of the Riveters franchise in her two years.

This is the third time this year that her assists outnumbered her shots on goal. She racked up five points without so much as getting a single puck to the net. That’s a special kind of player.

If Kessel has the puck between the hashmarks, it’s already too late.
Youtube/NWHL

Two of her assists came on the powerplay. Kessel led the league in powerplay points in 2016-17 (8) as well as primary powerplay assists (5) in just eight games. If the Riveters are to right the ship and crawl out of the basement, they need take advantage at 5-on-4. Given their personnel on the ice, there is no excuse not to succeed. Their top unit was in vintage form Sunday, with Kessel, Courtney Burke, and Madison Packer running the show.

This team can be and has been an offensive dynamo. Just let Amanda Kessel and company cut loose.

Trending down: Bostonian confidence | 5-0 loss, 40 SOGs allowed vs BUF
Over-confidence on the part of the Boston Pride players is unlikely. After all, virtually every game played in this season has been competitive and the Buffalo Beauts are one of the most well-constructed rosters in the league.

But their Twitter account got to talking, providing some ample locker room wall material.

Trash-talking social media accounts are nothing new. The Vegas Golden Knights helped build their brand by razzing opponents on Twitter in their inaugural NHL season. But that doesn’t excuse the Pride from being handed a heaping helping of Humble Pie Saturday against the Beauts.

Shannon Szabados turned aside all 30 shots thrown her way for Buffalo, while her opponent Katie Burt was chased for the first time in her NWHL career after allowing four goals on 39 shots.

The Beauts now sit just two points behind the Pride and Whitecaps for first place. Boston has two games remaining against the Whitecaps (including one this weekend) and one more against the Beauts.

Given Buffalo and Boston’s history of postseason match-ups, it seems like this rivalry is destined to spill over into its fourth consecutive playoff grudge match, right?

And I am here for the trash talk if and when it does.

Trending up: Kelly Babstock, BUF | Goal, assist, 10 SOGs vs BOS
Kelly Babstock had to shoulder almost the entirety of the Connecticut Whale’s offensive burden last season. It seemed like if she wasn’t at her best, the team had a near-impossible shot at a win. Yet she still flourished as the number one option, growing into one of the preeminent shot generators in her first three years in the NWHL.

When Babstock signed with the Buffalo Beauts in the offseason, the pressure of being the number one option was lifted off her shoulders. How high could her ceiling rise on a team with a myriad of high-end talent to play with?

After a strong opening game feature seven shots-on-goal, Babstock went mostly quiet. She went the entirety of 2018 without finding the back of the net as a Beaut and had seven straight performances of two shots or fewer. This was highly uncharacteristic of the veteran.

Well, snap back to reality. Babstock raged around the ice for one of the best performances of her career. She netted a filthy goal down low, assisted a powerplay goal and rifled 10 shots on goal.

Babstock is putting a twist on the slogan: new year, back to the old me.

Trending down: The Riveters’ goalie carousel | Four rostered goalies, five games remaining
Randy Velischek and the Metropolitan Riveters made headlines last week by trading for Connecticut Whale backup goaltender Maria Sorokina. With Meeri Räisänen taking the reins as the Whale’s starting netminder, Sorokina asked for a trade to the slumping Riveters for a chance at playing time.

This elicited mixed reactions around the league. On the one hand, Sorokina is no slouch. She has succeeded at the international level for Team Russia and posted dominant numbers for Dynamo St. Petersburg in her time as starter in the Russian Women’s Hockey League. She rewarded Velischek’s faith by stopping 18 of 21 shots on Sunday for her first NWHL victory against her former squad.

But the lingering question remains: what does this mean for Katie Fitzgerald and Kimberly Sass? The Riveters now have four goaltenders on their roster (Sarah Bryant being the fourth). Fitzgerald is a highly accomplished player, former Goaltender of the Year and Isobel Cup Champion. Sass is a fan-favorite and capable backup who has been serviceable in limited starts.

Sorokina’s arrival makes the crease a bit crowded in Newark.

The trade all but guarantees that Bryant will not see any ice time this season. Since Fitzgerald dressed as the backup on Sunday and has the longer resume, it likely means the same for Sass. As for Fitzgerald, she took to social media to vent her frustrations and disappointments with her performance this season.

Madison Packer made a point to say in her postgame conversation with Erica Ayala that goaltending “wasn’t the difference” in their win, though she said Sorokina was a “phenomenal goaltender.”

Packer also told The Hockey Writers’ Dan Rice: “There’s been a lot of criticism of the coaching staff and things like that, and that is what it is....it’s tough to go to the rink when you’re frustrated and you don’t have that passion for what you’re doing.”

Make of that what you will.

The Riveters will face the Buffalo Beauts for the first time since Katie Fitzgerald’s Isobel Cup-winning 1-0 shutout in March. The starting goaltender has not yet been announced.

Wavering stock: Minnesota’s offense
What a vexing position the Minnesota Whitecaps are in. They are 7-3-0 on the year, yet find themselves mired in an offensive drought, having mustered just five goals in their last four games.

The Whitecaps are a very rush-happy team. It leads to exciting north-south hockey but also can result in long periods of time without production if the bounces don’t fall.

Some figures: pre-season MVP favorite Hannah Brandt is pointless in her last six games and averaging only 2.3 shots on goal in that stretch. Since her explosive start, Jonna Curtis has not scored in five games. Lee Stecklein registered six assists in her first four games, yet has just one goal and zero assists in six games since. Amy Menke is pointless in her last four games and has only two goals and zero assists despite skating on a line with Hannah Brandt and Kendall Coyne Schofield (who incidentally also only has one goal with a goaltender present this season).

With all that in mind, the Minnesota Whitecaps are still in a points tie for first place with Boston. They will have a chance to re-establish their offense with a pair of road games this weekend against the Whale and the Pride.

Four of the Whitecaps’ last six games will be against the last-place Connecticut Whale (2-5-2). The top seed is well within reach.

You want a New Year’s resolution? Revamp the offense and sustain pressure the way these high-end talents are capable of doing.