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NWHL Stock Report: Playoff SZN

The quest for the Cup begins. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose...

Pat McCarthy

Here’s the thing about one-game playoffs. Pretty much anything can happen. History can lean as heavily as possible to one side, but at the end of the day, so much comes down to puck luck and momentum.

Getting hot at the right time can make all the difference in the world.

The seeding is set. Let’s take a look at who’s hot, who’s not and who to keep an eye on heading into the 2019 hunt for the Isobel Cup.

Trending up: Katie Fitzgerald, MET | 40 saves in shootout win over BUF
An up-and-down season for the Riveters’ netminder ended in triumph on Sunday as Katie Fitzgerald stood on her head in a 4-3 Metropolitan victory. Fitzgerald was on her game from the jump, stopping 16 shots in the first period alone.

It was a vintage Brick Wall Fitzy performance that the Riveters desperately needed. With home ice advantage hanging in the balance, Fitzgerald held firm to bring a 3-3 game into overtime and eventually a shootout, where she stopped three of four Beauts skaters.

It’s no secret that Fitzgerald got off to an inauspicious start for a multitude of reasons, which eventually led to her benching. The team sprung for a trade for Maria Sorokina as a third goaltending option down the stretch and things looked bleak for the 2016-17 Goalie of the Year.

Fitzgerald put a stop to the goalie carousel with a standout performance Sunday afternoon, earning her first victory since Oct. 27 (her fifth start since that date). In her last four appearances, Fitzgerald has a .924 save percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average. She’s reverting to the Katie Fitzgerald that posted a .920 save percentage in last year’s regular season, and it couldn’t be coming at a better time.

Sometimes it’s about finding a groove at the right moment. It may take a classic Playoff Beast Mode performance from Fitzgerald for the Rivs to go anywhere in the postseason, and she seems to be in the right place to give it.

Fitzgerald will likely get the nod on Thursday night in the 4v5 game against Connecticut.

Trending down: Boston at Buffalo | Fourth postseason meeting in four years
What a shock, the Boston Pride and Buffalo Beauts are facing off in the playoffs.

It’s become a tradition, and each of their meetings have been instant classics. Hilary Knight’s Finals overtime penalty shot goal in 2016. Brianne McLaughlin’s Cup-winning 60-save spectacular. Sarah Casorso’s overtime laser to send Buffalo to their third Isobel Cup Final.

Buffalo has taken two of the three series from Boston. There’s reason to believe they will win the third as well.

The Beauts won both home games against the Pride handily, outscoring Boston by a combined score of 9-1. They also outshot the Pride 87-51.

It should be noted that in the four-game season series, Boston’s lone win came on home ice with Nicole Hensley patrolling the Buffalo crease. They are 0-3 with only three goals scored with Shannon Szabados in net.

The Pride may have the highest scoring offense in the league, but they have yet to solve the Queen. We could be looking at a McLaughlin-esque performance up in Buffalo Saturday night.

Trending up: Annika Zalewski, BUF | Goal, 3 assists in two games
Of all the talented Beauts scorers up and down their lineup, one player quietly contributing on the reg is Annika Zalewski. Zalewski centers Buffalo’s third line alongside veterans Taylor Accursi and Corinne Buie.

That trio has become perhaps the most dangerous third line in the NWHL.

Zalewski has strung together a five-game point streak during which she has two goals and five assists. She has nine assists and 12 points on the year. Buie meanwhile had goals in both games this past weekend while Taylor Accursi had a four-game point streak of her own snapped on Sunday.

Zalewski, Buie, and Accursi have combined for seven goals, seven assists and 24 shots on goal in their last five games together.

Their success together led to their getting the start Sunday afternoon and generating a goal 22 seconds into their contest against the Riveters. All three players have a lethal wrist shot when given time and space. What makes Zalewski so valuable, though, is her ability to see the ice on the rush as a center, and spread the puck accordingly.

While Buie and Accursi have been heating up, they owe much of their success to the play of Annika Zalewski, who has assisted in the last four goals scored by either of her two wingers.

Trending down: Road opponents in Minnesota | Good luck scoring at TRIA
The Minnesota Whitecaps finished with a flourish after a December slump, rattling off five consecutive wins to close out their inaugural NWHL season. In that stretch they allowed only three goals. All three of those goals came when they were the visiting team.

Minnesota has been nothing short of a house of horrors for visiting teams (well, except for Boston, who lit the lamp with regularity back in that December lull). The Whitecaps have a 2.00 goals-against average on home ice in eight games this season, and if that clunker of a weekend against the Pride is removed, that number dips to a paltry 0.67. That’s four goals in six games with three shutouts in the mix. Not to mention a .974 save percentage to go with it.

Maybe it’s the long trek westward. Maybe it’s the raucous Minnesota sellout crowds. Maybe Amanda Leveille has a water bottle full of “Mandy’s Secret Stuff” that she passes around before home games.

Cannot confirm nor deny this is an authentic glimpse at the Whitecaps’ locker room.

Regardless, clinching home ice advantage as the top seed in the league was a huge boost for the Whitecaps.

Visiting teams, beware.

Trending up: Madison Packer, MET | PPG, shootout goal vs BUF
Where exactly would the Riveters be this season without Madison Packer? Packer was a monster for the Rivs Sunday afternoon, tallying on the powerplay and adding an assist to spur the team onto its third victory of the season.

She also potted one of the nastiest shootout goals of the season.

Packer has now scored in five of her last six games, giving her eight on the season and tying the team lead. Her powerplay goal in the second period was the first home powerplay goal scored by the Riveters all season. Rebecca Russo would add a second such goal in the third.

While the win on Sunday was assuredly one to spur confidence in the team from Newark, it still wasn’t pretty. The team only mustered 17 shots on goal and struggled mightily getting the puck up ice in the early goings. Perhaps it took an intermission regrouping to come out stronger in the second, but the first period was nothing short of ugly.

While the Beauts expertly weaved into the zone, keeping the puck moving laterally as well as vertically up ice, the Riveters relied heavily on individuals carrying the puck into the zone, often without reinforcements. From the eye test, only two skaters truly seemed capable of this on Sunday: Amanda Kessel and Madison Packer. Packer is one of only a few skaters on the team that hasn’t taken a gigantic step back under the Velischek regime.

Alyssa Longmuir

It’s all-hands-on-deck time. Who better to look to for leadership than the woman who has two goals and three assists in five career postseason games?

This will be Packer’s fourth go-round in the Isobel Cup Playoffs. It very well might be her last. Expect her to light it up.