Twelve games into the 2019–20 NWHL regular season, the reigning Isobel Cup Champion Minnesota Whitecaps are in second place with a record of 7–3–2. The Whitecaps may not be on top of the league standings, but they have defeated every team in the league not named the Boston Pride.
This team looks significantly different to the Whitecaps club that looked outright dominant for stretches of the 2018–19 season, but it is still a team to be feared. The Whitecaps remain the best bet to not only stop the Boston Pride’s undefeated season in its tracks, but also to challenge them for the Isobel Cup.
Before the 2019–20 season began, the Whitecaps were one of the two best teams in the NWHL on paper due largely to their forward depth. After the first dozen games of the campaign, veterans Allie Thunstrom and Jonna Curtis and newcomers Audra Richards and Nicole Schammel have led Minnesota’s offense. The Whitecaps are averaging 2.67 even strength goals per game and have a +11 even strength goal differential — both of which are second only to the Pride. Which is one way to say that this offense has, for the most part, lived up to some lofty expectations.
Curtis, the NWHL’s 2019 Newcomer of the Year, has been out of the lineup for the last three games, which has provided an opportunity for Minnesota to demonstrate its depth. Fortunately for the Whitecaps, Richards, a 2019 NWHL All-Star with the Riveters, found her scoring touch and has been picking up the slack. After earning three points in the first eight games of the season, Richards has six points — including three goals — in her last four games.
From the blue line, Amanda Boulier and Sydney Baldwin are third and fourth among defenders in scoring this year. However, they are the Whitecaps’ only major contributors in terms of production on defense. For the second straight season, Minnesota’s main weapon is their speedy group of forwards. When their team speed isn’t enough to get the job done, they seem ill-equipped to grind out wins against the league’s more physical teams.
Boulier and Baldwin have been superb in all three zones, but the rest of the blue line has been more of a mixed bag. There’s a case to be made that captain Winny Brodt Brown has also been an exception. She’s tripled her production from last season, with three assists, and continues to provide leadership and steadfast defense. However, Minnesota’s 78.0 percent success rate on the penalty kill is a direct result of the team’s defensive breakdowns.
In the second game of weekend doubleheaders, the Whitecaps’ veteran defense has looked noticeably slow, especially in contrast to the team’s fleet forward corps. There have been some noteworthy issues moving the puck out of the zone for Minnesota, especially against the top lines of the Riveters, Beauts, and Pride.
Something that might be contributing to the defense’s lack of consistency is the fact that only four defenders have played in 10 or more games. In other words, the Whitecaps’ bottom pair has been something of a rotating cast, led recently by newcomer Rose Alleva. When Boulier and Baldwin aren’t on the ice, the Whitecaps have struggled in their own zone, especially against the Pride.
Amanda Leveille is second in the NWHL in wins (7) and is tied for second with a .917 Sv% with former teammate Kelsey Neumann. The former Goaltender of the Year winner has played every second of the season for the Whitecaps thus far — 724:56 — and has come up big in when the skaters in front of her have struggled to score. As was the case last year, Leveille has been the team’s most valuable and most consistent player.
Through her last four starts of the season, Leveille has posted an extraordinary .952 Sv% and has come up with numerous big saves in some tight games. Without her, the Whitecaps could very easily have dropped one, if not two, games against the winless Connecticut Whale. If that had happened, we would definitely be looking at this Minnesota team in a different light than we are now.
It’s been an interesting first half to the season for the 2019 Isobel Cup Champions. Outside of being on the receiving end of a weekend sweep at the hands of the Pride, the Whitecaps have looked very much like a team that’s destined for a return to the Isobel Cup Final. However, they have definitely demonstrated a lack of depth on the blue line and continue to lean heavily on elite goaltender Leveille.
If the Whitecaps can stay healthy and find line combinations that bring out the best in players like forwards Meghan Lorence and Stephanie Anderson, they should have no issue holding on to second place in the standings. The same is true for the team’s second and third d-pairs. One could say that the Whitecaps are a promising work in progress — a Rubik’s cube with three sides solved. In the second half of the season, they need to find a way to impose their will on opposing teams with their speed and find defensive pairs that click.
All data courtesy of nwhl.zone and the author’s own tracking.
Disclosure: the author of this piece is currently employed by the NWHL.