When the 2021-22 PHF season began, things looked a bit grim for the Metropolitan Riveters' defense. As a group, they frequently made errors in coverage and with their zone exits, gave up too many rushes, and bled shots and scoring chances against. Through the first three months of the season, the Riveters, on average, allowed 34.9 SA/GP while averaging 27.9 SF/GP. Obviously, there’s more to defense than limiting shots against, but that shot differential helps tell the story of the team’s early defensive struggles.
After losing Kiira Dosdall-Arena, Rebecca Morse, Saroya Tinker, Sammy Kolowrat, and Samantha Fieseler over the offseason, the Riveters turned to free agency to sign veterans to rebuild its defense. Kristen Barbara, Rachael Ade, Lenka Čurmová, Colleen Murphy, and Rose Alleva joined returning defenders Leila Kilduff and Allie Olnowich. That’s right. There were only two holdovers from Lake Placid.
On paper, that is a fine group of defenders. However, as one might have expected, the overhaul of personnel led to growing pains — which were exacerbated by Kilduff’s injury and Čurmová missing time with the Slovakian national team early in the season. Whatever chemistry was there from the 2019-20 season and three games in Lake Placid was gone. At times, the defense looked cobbled together. It looked like it missed Morse, Tinker, and Dosdall-Arena in a big, bad way. It was holding the team back.
Fortunately for the Rivs, things have been quite a bit different lately.
“I think we are definitely getting our D-core settled and we’re minimizing our mistakes and it’s definitely showing in the games,” Alleva told the Ice Garden last weekend. “[Saturday] was a great game, we really out-shot [Boston] and the defense prevented a lot of shots, too. We are picking up sticks and preventing them from getting rebounds.”
Over the last two months or so, the Riveters’ defense has been much improved — and not just because Kilduff is back and the team re-signed Dosdall-Arena in late February. Make no mistake, the return of Dosdall-Arena addressed the team’s greatest need, but the blue line was playing better before she entered the mix. All it took was a little bit of time for this veteran group to carve out roles and find a group identity. of veterans to carve out roles and a group identity.
Barbara, in particular, is having an outstanding season. She has emerged as another defender the Rivs can rely on to make plays on the power play — the other is Murphy. Barbara now leads both the team and all PHF defenders with 12 assists. That’s a big deal on a team that has struggled to get offense out of its defense since the departure of Kelsey Koelzer, Courtney Burke, and Jenny Ryan. It may be hard to believe, but we’re still waiting for a Rivs defender to score a goal this season.
This season, Kristen Barbara is leading the @Riveters with 12 assists in 18 GP.— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) March 9, 2022
That's the most assists by a Rivs defender since the 2017-18 season (Burke, Ryan). It's also good for the fourth-highest scoring season by a Rivs' D in franchise history.
Even though they’re still hunting for their first goal, the Rivs’ defense, as a group, has been better in all three zones. Zone exits are not as consistent as Mocek and associate head coach Kelly Nash might like them to be, but the puck is moving far better than it was in November and December. On top of that, opposing teams are getting fewer chances to exploit breakdowns in the neutral zone. Things just look, well, better. A lot better.
With the postseason just around the corner, the Rivs’ d-pairs will likely be as follows.
Rachael Ade - Colleen Murphy
Kristen Barbara - Kiira Dosdall-Arena
Leila Kilduff - Rose Alleva
Allie Olnowich / Lenka Čurmová
It wasn’t that long ago when the Riveters were forced to dress five defenders and experiment with Mallory Rushton playing defense. Now, they are in a position where they can scratch Čurmová, who was an All-Star with the Beauts. That, in and of itself, is an indication of the state of the current blue line.
“We know our first two D-pairs of Rachael and Murph and now Barbs and Kiira they play well defensively and, on top of that, they can also create offense,” head coach Ivo Mocek told The Ice Garden on Saturday night. “On top of that, Rose and Leila today do their work and do it well. I understand they didn’t see much ice towards the end of the game, but they did their part. They played us to a tie game and did exactly what we wanted to do. The other two pairs are just able to create more offense.”
With an improved blue line, two lines that can create scoring chances and light the lamp, and a solid goalie tandem, the Riveters are no longer an “easy” matchup for anyone.
This team may be far from perfect and could definitely benefit from more scoring depth and another puck-moving defender, but it has no shortage of experience. We all know the Rivs will be underdogs come playoff time, but even the PHF’s elite teams can’t afford to take them lightly. They’re physical, experienced, and, if they stay out of the box, they can hang with anyone in this league thanks to their deeper, more-balanced blue line.