The decline of the Metropolitan Riveters has been one of the biggest stories in women’s hockey this year. With four weeks left in the 2018-19 NWHL regular season, the reigning Isobel Cup Champions have won just three games. They’re three losses away from a 3-13-0 record this year after finishing the 2017-18 season with a record of 13-3-0.
For the bulk of the season, the scapegoat for the Riveters’ struggles has been first-year head coach Randy Velischek. The frustration of diehard Riveters fans this year has been understandable. Velischek joined the team less than a month before the beginning of the regular season. And, under their new head coach, the Riveters started the season with five straight losses and were outscored 23-7. Those are some pretty bad optics.
Last month, The Ice Garden spoke with Velischek about the state of his team. He believed that a change in the team’s systems wasn’t holding the Riveters back. Instead, he felt that the team’s 3-8-0 start was tied to injuries and a lack of execution from his players.
It also hasn’t helped that the Rivs have a league-worst .871 team save percentage, but Velischek wasn’t in a hurry to assign blame to Katie Fitzgerald. The coach believes that the Riveters have six of the best defenders in the league, but that hasn’t stopped his team from being plagued by defensive breakdowns all season long. It’s also unsurprising that things didn’t suddenly turn around for the Riveters after they acquired Maria Sorokina from the Connecticut Whale, although she was in net for the team’s last win on Jan. 6.
Truth be told, the 2018 Isobel Cup Champions have looked sloppy in all three zones this season and the numbers support that observation. Per Even-Strength.com, the Riveters have the second-worst five-on-five Shots For Percentage (SF%) in the league. There’s also a very good chance that percentage could slip down from 47.02% with two games against the Beauts and one against the Pride left on the Riveters’ regular season schedule. When you combine that with the worst penalty kill in the league (79.1%) and a meek power play (7.8%), it paints a clear picture of why the Riveters have struggled so much this season.
The clock is ticking for the Riveters to find their game before a must-win play-in game against the Whale arrives, and they know it.
“That’s been in the back of our heads all season,” Riveters forward Alexa Aramburu told The Ice Garden last Saturday. “Obviously you want to win every game leading up to [the playoffs]. You want to have a good season, you want to stay strong in the league ... worse comes to worst, it does come down to that one game.
“We’re just kind of trying to stay strong and push through as a team,” the rookie continued. “[We can] still come together and work as hard as we can to figure it out.”
The good news for the Rivs is that they’re coming off of a strong showing against the hottest team in the NWHL. The Riveters fell to the Buffalo Beauts by just one goal on Feb. 2 in Newark. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Beauts had been on a four-game goal-scoring rampage, but the Riveters found a way to shut down Buffalo’s deadly top line of Dani Cameranesi, Hayley Scamurra, and Maddie Elia. And they did it without All-Star forward Madison Packer.
In net, Katie Fitzgerald had her best start since Nov. 18. She made several monster kick saves to spoil golden scoring opportunities for the Beauts. She looked like the goalie we saw post back-to-back shutouts in the 2018 Isobel Cup Playoffs. The Riveters may have lost on Saturday, but they have to feel good about how they played without a key player like Packer in the lineup.
Saturday was a step in the right direction for Velischek’s Riveters, albeit a shaky one. Far too many Riveters shots are getting blocked, especially on the power play, and there is still a lot of work to be done in the neutral and defensive zones. But, for the first time in a long time, the Riveters were stretching the ice with their speed and passing and keeping a team with a winning record honest in the neutral zone.
The Riveters looked solid in Newark on Saturday, but they need to be better. A lot better. We haven’t seen the offense, defense, and goaltending all clicking at the same time all season. If that doesn’t start happening soon, there’s no way that the Riveters will be able to tie together three-straight wins to become the first team to win back-to-back Isobel Cups.
Data courtesy of Even-Strength.com, NWHL.zone, and the author's personal stat tracking.