The Minnesota Whitecaps are hunting to be the first NWHL franchise to “repeat” as Isobel Cup Champions — albeit by technicality, since they never got a chance to defend their crown against the Boston Pride last year. The Connecticut Whale, meanwhile, are looking to advance to their first Isobel Cup Final in franchise history, and they are in a better position to do so than ever before.
The Minnesota Whitecaps certainly had a flair for the dramatic in Lake Placid. Their first win of the season was a comeback effort against the Pride. They followed that up with an unfathomable comeback from down 5-1, stealing a 6-5 shootout win from the Toronto Six in a manic game for the ages. Game Three was a scoreless tug-of-war against the Riveters until Haley Mack tallied the lone goal with just 10 seconds remaining in regulation. Their only loss of the round-robin came against the Six, with the winning goal scored with just 23 seconds left in regulation.
“Comfort” is not really in the Minnesota vocabulary.
Most fascinating about the Whitecaps’ Lake Placid performance is their ability to find a way to win even without great performances from their stars. Amanda Leveille was far from perfect, despite flashes of brilliance like her 38-save shutout of the Riveters. She allowed four or more goals in two of her four appearances, something she did just once in the final 18 games of her 2019-20 campaign. Yet she still finished 3-1 with a .936 save percentage. As the saying goes, they don’t ask how, they ask how many.
Allie Thunstrom, last year’s Co-MVP and Goal-per-Game scorer? Zero points in Lake Placid. Jonna Curtis, who had 36 points in 21 games last season, potted just one goal with no assists in four games.
The Caps were instead carried by their depth, with Nina Rodgers leading the way. Audra Richards and Meghan Lorence each had four points, plus Haley Mack finished with three. All told, nine different Whitecaps found the back of the net.
Oh, and they’ll be adding offensive dynamo Amanda Boulier to the roster for the Semi-Final, just for some added punch. Though it should be noted that Sydney Baldwin will not be with the team.
Return of the Why Not Us Whale
The Whale delivered on promises of dark-horse contention for the Isobel Cup while in Lake Placid. They bested the Buffalo Beauts in a shootout and shocked the Boston Pride with a four-goal third period, after taking the Metropolitan Riveters to the wire in a 4-3 loss on Jan. 24. Their fourth game, a blowout loss to the Toronto Six, seems vindicated in hindsight given the team’s mass exposure to Covid-19.
Alyssa Wohlfeiler is the motor driving the Whale offense, earning a goal and four assists over four games in Lake Placid. Her power-on zone entries was — and is — marvelous. Kayla Friesen has proven to be a speedy top-line option for head coach Colton Orr, while defender Tori Howran gives the Whale the playmaking defender the Whale so desperately need. The makeover done on the Whale’s offense resulted in their being the best possession team in Lake Placid with a 54.5 Corsi-For percentage. That’s uncharted territory for the Pod.
Their goaltending is superb, with Abbie Ives seizing control of the number one job. Ives was a beast for the Whale, posting a 2.01 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in three starts.
Connecticut’s x-factor comes in the form of Melissa Samoskevich. The Quinnipiac-grad and Connecticut native is a proven scorer at any level, from her days at the illustrious Shattuck St. Mary’s to her 2019 World Championships performance with Team USA. She can play at all three strengths, with a particular knack for scoring on the powerplay. She’ll be getting her first taste of NWHL action Friday night with sky-high expectations around her.
It’s hard to quantify, but there’s a certain swagger to this Whale team that makes them so intriguing. They aren’t the best team in the playoffs on paper, but they have plenty of desirable intangibles and they are greater than the sum of their parts. This could be the Whale team that drinks from the Isobel Cup.
There’s plenty of chaos surrounding this matchup. These two teams never met in Lake Placid and they are about to play a single-elimination game two months removed from their last action. Anything can happen.
Minnesota is the deeper, more experienced team with very few glaring flaws on its roster. But if they can’t get a good performance out of Thunstrom and Curtis, that leaves the door wide open for a scrappy, hungry Whale team looking to go out on top for their retiring captain Doyle. Both teams have added impact players (Boulier, Samoskevich) while subtracting key depth pieces for different reasons (Sydney Baldwin for Minnesota, Janine Weber for Connecticut).
One thing is for certain: given both teams’ propensity for late-game heroics, it certainly seems like both sides will be white-knuckling it to the final horn.
Predicted final: Whitecaps 4, Whale 3.
Connecticut Whale vs. Minnesota Whitecaps | 8:00 PM ET
WATCH: NBCSN or twitch.tv/live
Data courtesy of NWHL.zone, InStat