In order to earn the right to play in the 2019 Isobel Cup Playoffs Semifinal against the Minnesota Whitecaps, the Metropolitan Riveters and the Connecticut Whale will cross sticks in the first play-in game in NWHL history.
Interestingly enough, the Whale and the Riveters split their four-game regular season series with two wins apiece. However, the Riveters’ first win — which came on Nov. 25 — was a shootout victory. So, if we’re going to give the edge to one team in the season series, it has to be the Whale for their two ROWs (regulation and overtime wins). They also outscored the Riveters by a margin of 12 goals to 10 in four games.
With that being said, the Riveters did have the most definitive win of the series. They bested Connecticut 6–3 on Jan. 6. Metropolitan struck twice on the power play in that game, thanks in large part to a five-assist classic performance from superstar Amanda Kessel. She’s a must-watch player in this week’s play-in game, but she’s not the only one.
Players to watch
Riveters rookie forward and 2019 All-Star Audra Richards picked up six goals, including a hat trick on Nov. 25, in her four games against Connecticut this year. The Whale were only able to keep the emerging power forward and her big shot out of their net in one game in the series. Richards hammered 18 shots on goal, including eight shots in her hat trick game, against the Whale this season. She also managed to stay out of the box in all four of her games against Connecticut.
Oh, and Rebecca Russo of the Riveters is definitely a must-watch player on Thursday night. Why? Because she guaranteed victory over the Whale after the Riveters shootout win over the Buffalo Beauts on Sunday night.
The player the Riveters will need to try to stop is Kateřina Mrázová. Mrázová scorched the Riveters this season with four goals and two primary assists. In the season series she made an impact on the power play, scored a shorthanded goal, and averaged 4.0 shots per-game.
If head coach Randy Velischek was allowed to duct tape a large flashing light to Mrázová’s helmet, he probably would. When Mrázová is on the ice, the Riveters can’t afford to make mistakes, because there’s a good chance they will end up in the back of their net.
Matchups and the new Pod
As if there weren’t already plenty of storylines coming into the play-in game, the Whale added five players to their roster on Feb. 22. The Riveters definitely struggled to get pucks past Finnish netminder Meeri Räisänen this year. Unfortunately for the Whale, Räisänen suffered a season-ending injury and was released. Erin O’Neil and former Riveter Shenae Lundberg will be easier challenges for the Riveters, but their once-mighty offense has been about as predictable as a cornered opossum. The Whale can’t afford to do them any favors by taking costly penalties.
The Whale’s new skaters could help to take some pressure off of the Mrázová line, which could tip the balance in Connecticut’s favor. Speaking of the Mrázová line, Velischek needs to watch his matchups carefully. The top defensive pairing of Courtney Burke and Jenny Ryan have been burned a lot at even strength this year, especially by opposing lines with speed. Playing them against the Mrázová line could prove to be a mistake.
It’s hard to believe just how far the 2018 Isobel Cup Champions have fallen, but here we are. The Riveters might have more talent on paper than the Whale, but this game is more or less a toss-up. This contest will likely come down to which team simply wants it more.
I predict we’ll see the Riveters — led by Kessel and Madison Packer — win this game. The Whale are going to miss Räisänen’s ability to stonewall high-quality scoring chances in a big, bad way, and Katie Fitzgerald, the MVP of the 2018 Isobel Cup Playoffs, has been on top of her game recently. The Riveters also have home-ice advantage and are coming off of a huge win over the Beauts. Momentum is definitely on their side.