The countdown to the 2021 Isobel Cup Semifinals and Final is officially underway. We’ll have full previews of both semifinals and the Isobel Cup Final here on The Ice Garden but because it’s been a few weeks since we’ve seen NWHL action we wanted to catch everyone up on the last four teams left standing. Only one of them will lift Isobel in Boston at the Warrior Ice Arena on March 27.
There are a lot of things to consider before the NWHL postseason gets underway. Just like we saw in Lake Placid, there are no guarantees that every player signed to each roster will be in Boston. There’s also no way to know how the break will impact the Six, Whitecaps, Whale, and Pride. However, we can put together a decent picture of what each team is bringing to the table based on how they performed in Lake Placid. Let’s dive in.
- The top offense in Lake Placid (3.5 GF/GP).
- Toronto’s defense bent but rarely broke with Elaine Chuli in the crease.
Toronto was arguably the most entertaining team to watch in Lake Placid. The Six’s offense was a force to be reckoned with once it got rolling and it has the potential to be even better in Boston with Emma Woods and Brooke Boquist returning to the lineup. Through six games, Toronto averaged 21.33 even-strength scoring chances per-game (SC/GP) and 51.83 CF/GP. That means the Six’s offense excelled in both quantity and quality at even strength.
They weren’t too shabby on the power-play either.
The concerns about Toronto’s small roster and shallow blue line before the puck dropped Lake Placid were quickly erased by the performance of the top pair of Taylor Woods and Lindsay Eastwood. They wasted little time establishing themselves as one of the top d-pairs in the league.
Woods and Eastwood ate up a ton of minutes and were instrumental to Toronto’s attack and defense. Sure, no one should expect Woods to continue to shoot at 22.2% but don’t overlook how integral they were to the offense beyond Woods scoring four goals in six games. They’ll be tasked with stymying the Pride’s dangerous offense in the semifinals and helping to tilt the ice once Toronto gets the puck into the offensive zone.
X-Factor: Mikyla Grant-Mentis
Stopping the Six is a lot more complicated than stopping Grant-Mentis but, let’s be honest, it will help.
MGM has been especially dangerous since her move to the wing, which head coach Digit Murphy believes has freed her up to do her thing in the offensive zone. Per InStat’s data, Grant-Mentis averaged 3.17 iSC/GP (individual scoring chances per-game) at even-strength and scored four of her five goals at evens. She’s the player the Pride will have to shut down at evens but at the end of the day, she is just one weapon. Toronto is not a one-line team. They’re real contenders with a deep, dangerous offense.
- The second-best offense (3.14 GF/GP) in Lake Placid and the deepest forward group.
- All kinds of motivation. They have home-ice advantage and unfinished business to settle.
Are the Boston Pride the team that could only beat the Buffalo Beauts in Lake Placid or are they the team that nearly went undefeated in 2019-20? Well, they’re neither.
On paper, Boston truly has it all. That’s why their 3-4-0 record in Lake Placid was so shocking and why their post-game press conferences had more tension than a tight rope. The Pride know they are a great hockey team and they definitely had their fill of losing in Lake Placid.
How does a team with Jillian Dempsey, McKenna Brand, Sammy Davis, Christina Putigna, Tereza Vanisova, Mary Parker, Lexie Laing, Kaleigh Fratkin, and Mallory Souliotis score one goal in four of its first five games? The answer to that question is pretty simple: hockey can be cruel. The Pride had a 5.17 shooting percentage through their first five games — including a 5-1 rout of the Beauts on Jan. 24. That’s what happens when you run into great goaltending and a few important bounces don’t go your way.
The good news for Boston is that this team knows how to win. The Pride are stacked. It’s time to forget about Lake Placid and keep it simple. Win two games at home ice.
X-Factor: Jillian Dempsey
No one can ever question how tough or dedicated Jillian Dempsey is to the game and to her team. The shoulder injury she sustained on Jan. 26 against the Six made the concerns about Boston’s slow start in Lake Placid turn to desperation. Having her healthy(er) is a big deal for the Pride. She’s the reigning co-MVP of the league and one of the best leaders in the sport. Dempsey has the ability to will her team to the Isobel Cup Final.
With Dempsey healthy, Selander between the pipes, and Fratkin leading the blue line the Pride are so much more than their label of fourth seed.
- Best special teams in Lake Placid: 26.3% PP (1st); 85.7% PK (3rd).
- Best goaltending in Lake Placid. Leveille always delivers.
The Whitecaps were buoyed by the superb goaltending of Amanda Leveille and a dangerous power-play led by defender Sydney Baldwin in Lake Placid. It’s hard to make any bold statements about Minnesota because we did only see them play four games but this team has a lot in common with last year’s squad.
Minnesota has a wealth of experience and skaters who are exceptionally dangerous on the rush like Allie Thunstrom, Jonna Curtis, and Meghan Lorence. The Whitecaps weren’t a particularly dominant team in the shot share in 2019-20 — judging by the most basic stats (Steady and team SOG rates) — but they were a Cup contender because of Leveille and a lethal counter-attack. Also, Thunstrom scoring 24 goals in 24 games helped. A bit.
So, how do you beat the Minnesota Whitecaps? Well, step one is staying out of the box. Step two is being disciplined in the neutral zone and being mindful of stretch passes. Baldwin (16) led the Whitecaps in controlled zone exits via pass at even-strength in Lake Placid but Boulier should be able to step right into that role without missing a beat.
The last step to beating the Whitecaps? Take Leveille’s eyes away from her and finding whatever greasy, dirty goals you can because it’s playoff time and that means that Lev is gonna Lev.
X-Factor: Amanda Boulier
Typically, it would be next to impossible to replace someone like Sydney Baldwin, who averaged a staggering 27:47 TOI/GP. But the Whitecaps are filling that hole with All-Star Amanda Boulier, who has been a contender for the NWHL’s Defender of the Year for the past few seasons.
Boulier is an effortlessly beautiful skater with great vision and the ability to play a ton of minutes. She led all defenders in the NWHL in the league in even-strength scoring (19) last season and had eight points on the power play. Boulier can do it all and her game should complement Maddie Rowe’s on a new top pair for the Whitecaps. Her mobility will also be a welcome addition to the team’s transition game.
The other big factor here is Allie Thunstrom having a few more weeks to get healthy. She’s still just a few months removed from returning to the ice after tearing her MCL. Even if she’s not back to 100%, she’s likely closer than she was in Lake Placid. And that’s huge for Minnesota and for Thunstrom’s confidence.
- Everyone’s favorite underdog has an underrated roster with a ton of upside.
- The Whale had outstanding possession numbers in a four-game sample in Lake Placid.
The Whale are by far the most interesting team in the semifinals. They had excellent possession numbers in the four games we saw them play in Lake Placid, including the best average Corsi For in the league (54.5). Sure, we’re talking about a four-game sample but there was a lot to like about how the Whale played. There’s also a lot to like about their roster.
This is the deepest Whale roster we’ve seen since the NWHL’s inaugural season but they will definitely miss Janine Weber who will not be joining the team in Boston.
The blue line, led by captain Shannon Doyle, looked dramatically improved thanks to the additions of Tori Howran and Maggie LaGue and veteran Hanna Beattie moving back to defense. The Whale also have (at least) two lines that can score led by established stars Emma Vlasic, Alyssa Wohlfeiler, and newcomer Kayla Friesen. In net, the Whale have two goalies they know they can trust in Abbie Ives and Brooke Wolejko.
The big question for Connecticut will be whether or not head coach Colton Orr can bring everything together and guide the Whale to the Isobel Cup Final. Remember, they only got to play four games together in Lake Placid and a few players — Friesen and Howran among them — played just three games together before being removed from the lineup due to COVID-related issues.
X-Factor: Melissa Samoskevich
There’s no surprise here. Samoskevich will be the x-factor for the Whale. She’s one of the best players in the league and has the talent to add to an already impressive even-strength attack. Samo can also kill penalties and contribute on the power-play — nine of her 54 goals at Quinnipiac were scored on the advantage — and isn’t shy about shooting the puck. She averaged 5.06 SOG/GP in her senior season with the Bobcats in 2018-19.
Is Samoskevich the missing ingredient that will guide the Whale to the Isobel Cup Final? She very well could be. This team wants to win in the worst way and this could be Doyle’s last season. There are few players who deserve to lift Isobel more than the Whale’s charismatic captain.
Data courtesy of InStat, Stathletes, NWHL.zone, USCHO.com, and the author’s own tracking.