Around the Rink in the PHF: Week 14

This week we hear from thoughts from Madison Packer, Meaghan Pezon, Jenna Rheault, Chelsey Brodt-Rosenthal, and Rivs HC Ivo Mocek!

Welcome back to Around the Rink!

Folks, it’s hard to believe we are on the cusp of the final weekend of the regular season! What a wild ride it has been, eh? Once again, thank you to all of the players/staff of the six teams for your openness, time, and assistance when I piece these columns together. Also, a special thanks to my teammates at TIG and everyone who reads these, shares them, comments about them. I, and we appreciate it.

And here, we, go!

Point Shots

1* In the middle of their season the Metropolitan Riveters ended up with an unscheduled (and unprecedented?) stretch of 10 consecutive games away from their home ice once covid and winter weather delays wreaked havoc on the PHF schedule. The good news is that the ten games - or half of their season - weren’t on consecutive weekends. Overall, it was a challenging year (seven wins in 20 games) for Head Coach Ivo Mocek and his staff to navigate through it all. But they were able to get into a rhythm with their final six games of the season at home, on consecutive weekends.

“I think we had a good start the first two games (of the season) against Connecticut, and then our schedule was so inconsistent so it became really hard for us to create any kind of momentum or to get into any flow when we did have games,” Mocek told me after his team’s regular-season finale. “That was really challenging. I saw it in our players. We can practice as hard as we want, and we can make it as close to game situations as we can, but not playing games for long stretches really showed and it took us a while to get into a groove. We finished the season by playing five weekends in a row - and that really helped us a lot.”

And what does he think of his team on the brink of the 2022 Isobel Cup Playoffs?

“Especially after that slow start to the season - it was great for us to have a bunch of games in a row. It exposed some things that we need to work on and I’m glad that we have this next weekend off so we can reset mentally, physically, and work on the things we need to work on,” explained Mocek. “These last few weeks we have played some really good games, but there was always something missing. Either not scoring enough goals, or making some defensive errors - still looking for that consistency and we have to be a little better.”

“We always say that 80-20 split - 80% of the game we play so well, but the 20% is not good. We just have to be more consistent, but I see a lot of progress. Today, after that kind of game, I don’t think it was our best game, but we found a way to win.”

1.1* The Rivs didn’t have Theresa Knutson available for their final two games of the season but her head coach says “she’ll be ready for Tampa.”

2* Staying with the Rivs, here’s more from my chat with their captain Madison Packer from two weekends ago. I asked if she was having fun, in her seventh season, while balancing playing at an elite level in the PHF and being a mom.

“I think my perspective has changed. Obviously, Anya’s role has changed and this has been fun for my family. He (Waylon) loves it, he has 20 aunts in that locker room. It’s just fun and my role has continued to be big on the ice,” she told me. “But I have started to look ahead at what is my life like after the fact. It’s been cool to have the younger kids come in and say they look up to you.”

“There isn’t as much pressure as there was before (on me). I’m having a lot of fun out there,” added Packer. “I think we’re coming along at the right time, and there’s no pressure when you’re at the bottom of the standings.”

2.1* I spoke with Rivs defender and NWHL OG Kiira Dosdall-Arena for a few minutes after Sunday’s game. She told me in the back of her mind the plan was to always come back to the Riveters following the birth of her daughter Josie, but whether it was possible was always up in the air. I got the sense that the line of communication between her and Mocek was always open and that she’s a little amazed that she’s been able to come back and play as well as she has.

Is there any significance to her wearing no. 17 now, and not the no. 26 that we are used to seeing her in? Nope, just a random number. By the time she had committed to returning, a lot of the Riveters-themed jerseys had been made already.

3* Shoutout to a friend of ATR - Rivs forward Mallory Rushton, who finished the regular season on a three-game point streak. She hadn’t seen much ice time earlier in the season and now that she sorta, kinda has gotten more, the points have started to come. In their season finale on Sunday she had a season-high four shots on goal and her goal in the second period stood as the game-winner.

I’ll be interested to see if she stays with the Rivs next season or ends up closer to home (Nova Scotia) with either Buffalo or Toronto. Something to keep an eye on when we get to the off-season.

4* When the Connecticut Whale departed Toronto on November 21 their record was 2-3-1 following a sweep at the hands of the Six. Now, as they await Toronto’s visit to Danbury on the final weekend of the PHF’s regular season, their record is 14-3-1! I’m no math major, but that means they’ve won 12 games in a row.

Both teams have earned a bye to the Isobel Cup Semifinals with excellent seasons and currently, Toronto has the edge in the standings by one point and obviously won the two previous matchups. A lot has changed since then for both teams and I’m looking forward to seeing Saturday’s game in person.

5* The goalies in the PHF had some great performances this past weekend - Toronto’s Elaine Chuli has now won a league-record 15 games in a row, and her record since joining the Six is 19-2-0 (playoffs & regular season). Former Pride goalie Brittany Ott holds the record for consecutive wins (22) that spans two seasons. Mariah Fujimagari earned her first pro shutout on Sunday and improved to 4-0-0 this season for the Whale.

Breanna Blesi, who’s been with the Whitecaps for about five seconds, picked up her first pro win on Saturday, stopping 34 of the 36 Riveters’ shots she faced. The next day she stopped 34 again in a 4-3 loss. Brooke Wolejko made 72 saves over two games for the Rivs against the high-octane Whitecaps and appears to be their no. 1 netminder heading into the playoffs. Boston’s Katie Burt stopped 37-of-39 against the Six in an overtime loss - seven (!) of those saves came in overtime.

5.1* Stick taps to the Toronto Six for finishing their first full season with an impressive 10-0-0 record on home ice. Boston was the only team to take them to overtime (twice) but still couldn’t knock off the new kids on the block. They’ve tied Boston, who did it twice (Season 2, Season 5), as teams that have had perfect home records in a single season.

6* When Boston was in New Jersey a few weekends ago I did a fun interview with defender Jenna Rheault about her game-day routine - spoiler alert she’s not superstitious, only a little stitious - for a feature that you will be able to consume via The Ice Garden after the playoffs end. In the midst of our talk, we discussed the influence that Head Coach Paul Mara (a former first-round pick in the NHL) has had on not only her but the team as a whole and I wanted to share some of that here. This is what we call a teaser in the industry folks!

“He’s one of the calmest coaches that I have ever had,” Rheault told me. “We have a lot of respect for him and he has a lot of respect for us, so if/when he does get to that point of yelling - it’s a huge wakeup call for us. We respect that out of him because he is able to keep us so calm. When he is calm, we can replicate that and it’s great for the locker room energy.”

I asked how much weight his words have, and his past careers as an NHL player, and as an assistant coach with Team USA have on a player like her because she plays the same position he did.

“I think everyone, myself included, on this team really, really respects his opinion and respects what he says because he knows best - he’s played the game at a high level,” added Rheault. “Johnny (McInnis) as well. He’s a great assistant coach and coaches the D. Whatever he says I really take to heart and try to be better the next time.”

6.1* What in the wide world of sports are we supposed to make of Boston’s power play this season? Right now, with two games left they sit at 3% (2-for-64) and Taylor Wenczkowski has both of their PPGs; one of which was their very first goal of the season (way back in November) in the first game. When I told a player on another team about that stat they couldn’t believe it was true. The Pride have scored four shorthanded goals this season and surrendered three shorthanded goals.

I feel like it’s a sleeping giant and if they find their mojo against Buffalo - in any of the next three games - it could be a game-changer for them. They have too much talent to be at the bottom of this league in that category. Way too much talent.

7* Had the pleasure of finally meeting Chelsey Brodt Rosenthal after Saturday’s game in Newark. For those that don’t know, she has been with the Whitecaps since their inception back in 2004 and her father Jack Brodt co-founded the franchise and is currently the team’s GM and co-head coach. She and her family have seen the ups and downs in women’s hockey over the past 20 years, so I was curious to get her views on all of the recent successes we’ve seen, not just in the PHF but overall in the sport.

“It’s pretty amazing to see how far it has come in just a short amount of time. Back in 2004, 2005, we were raising money to play pretty much,” Rosenthal said. “We would go out to communities and put on clinics before our games. So it was really rewarding, right, connecting with the community and kids in things like that. But now the fact that we’re getting paid and getting to do something we love it’s great. I’m really happy for the future and what is to come.”

She may be one of the PHF’s oldest players, but when you watch her play you would never know that she is usually at least ten years older than everyone else on the ice. Rosenthal, who has won an NCAA title (2004), a Clarkson Cup (2010), and an Isobel Cup (2018), always makes the right play, the smart pass, and very rarely gets caught out of position as a defender. And she’s still having fun.

“Oh yeah,” she replied when I asked if she still has fun playing these games. “I’m 38-years-old and I’m still amazed at how far things have come. I have a daughter who is almost nine years old and a son who’s six, and I think it’s so cool that they look up to my teammates. It’s really neat,” she said while grinning. “And the respect my son has and sees for women’s hockey players, it’s not just little girls - it’s little boys (that we can impact), too.”

7.1* Her sister (Whitecaps captain) Winny Brodt Brown hasn’t played since Dec. 19, 2021 due to an undisclosed injury so I asked how her rehab is going. Rosenthal said her sister just returned to practice last week. No word on if we’ll see her for the playoffs, but we can hope.

8* The Whitecaps have battled injuries all season. Forwards, defenders, goaltenders - all positions have been affected. So much so that ahead of the final two regular-season games Minnesota had to sign defender Sydney Baldwin and goaltender Breanna Blesi, and they shifted defender Taylor Turnquist to forward for the series against the Riveters. They also released goaltender Julie Friend from her PTO to be able to make the roster moves.

Blesi, who’s 22-years-old and played only five games at the University of Wisconsin where she was the goaltender of record, picked up her first pro win on Saturday with 34 saves in a 4-2 win. She definitely gave Minnesota a chance to win both games this weekend, which is all you ask of your goalie, but especially on Saturday.

“She’s in a really tough spot and she saved us there in the first period,” said her teammate Meaghan Pezon. “We got into New Jersey kinda late last night, got to our hotel at 2 am, and she really helped us survive and navigate that jet lag we had in the first period. She was unbelievable, I’m happy for her getting her first win, and hopefully, she can get another one! We had a little celebration in our room and gave her the game puck. Like I said she really kept us in it early.”

8.1* How tough must it be for a goalie to join a team near the end of its season? Even tougher when you think about how many of the Whitecaps players have played alongside one another for so long. “It’s definitely an adjustment for us. Syd Baldwin asked me before the game how she plays,” added Pezon. “It is definitely a new dynamic for us this year - with all of the new players we’ve had and we’re missing some old ones too with Winny and Brooke (White Lancette) at home. It’s a different and interesting vibe in the locker room.”

9* In addition to Minnesota adding Baldwin and Blesi to their roster for the final stretch, there were also a few other moves made by the other PHF teams. Toronto had forward Randi Marcon play on a PTO for their weekend series with Boston, no word yet on if she has signed.

Buffalo made headlines with the announcement that they have added Dana Trivigno to their roster, but she didn’t play in either of the Beauts’ games in Connecticut. Trivigno previously played for the Pride (2017-19) and the Whale (2016-17) and has 21 career points (8g-13a) in 40 games.

Connecticut announced that goaltender Jessica Strack, who was a practice player all season long, has been signed for the rest of the season. Boston signed Delaney Belinskas before their games in Toronto after she played two games the previous weekend on a PTO.

The league-imposed deadline to sign additional players ended on March 14.

10* With the 2021-22 season coming to a close all that remains to be sorted out in the standings is who’s in first place and who is in second place? Toronto currently has a one-point advantage over Connecticut, setting up a clash of the titans-like series in Danbury to end the season this weekend. A regulation win on Saturday would clinch first place for Toronto.

Any other scenario that plays out would mean that first place will still be up for grabs on Sunday. Keep in mind that the Six won the first two games against the Whale this season. Yours truly will be at Saturday’s game (you’ll probably see me next to the glass), and I’m pretty stoked to not only see and meet Toronto in person for the first time but to hopefully see a thrilling game. (No whammies, no whammies, no whammies!).

It PHFeels Like the PHFirst Time

Welcome to the Federation! Stick taps - hopefully, the first of many.

PHFirst Win: Breanna Blesi (MIN)

PHFirst Goal: Kristen Barbara (MET)

Quote of the Week

“It has been frustrating for sure. You are just trying to go out there and do whatever your role or responsibility is. That’s all you can do, just do your best. We can’t let our record weigh on us, every day is a new day, and with the playoff structure this season we come to the rink every day just trying to get a little better. It’s not fun losing, and we’re not used to that in this locker room, within this organization. We have had a lot of injuries this season, but we’ll get through it.” — Whitecaps defender Chelsey Brodt-Rosenthal on balancing the emotions of an odd regular season for her team.

My 3-Stars of the Week

* Breanne Wilson-Bennett (T6) - in her second weekend back with the Six she was a thorn in the side of the Pride. On Saturday she set up her team’s only goal in regulation and then was positioned perfectly to tap in the winning goal in overtime. The next day BWB’s power-play goal late in regulation tied the game for the home team for the third time, setting the stage for another OT triumph. Since rejoining the Six she has points (3g-1a) in three of their four games. I don’t know how tall she is, but she was the biggest player on the ice in both games.

** Mariah Fujimagari (CTW) - yes, it was only an 18-save shutout, but a shutout is a shutout, and Fuji’s donut on Sunday against her former squad was only the eighth shutout in the PHF this season. I’m sure if you gave her truth serum that she’d reveal it meant a lot to achieve that milestone against the Beauts, but she’s too much of a good person to admit that. So I’ll say it: you can bet that blanking the team that said thanks, but no thanks to her services was a feel-good moment.

*** Mallory Rushton (MET) - her deft, kick-pass to Kelly Babstock got the Rivs’ short-lived comeback started on Saturday, and on Sunday it was her goal, the Riveters fourth in a row, that stood up as the game-winner and clinched 4th place in the standings. With points in three straight games heading into the postseason, Rushton could be an X-factor for her team when they square off against the Whitecaps again.

Did You Know?

The opening round of the playoffs is set. The Boston Pride are the third seed and will play the sixth seed, the Buffalo Beauts, on March 25 (4:00 pm in Florida). The Metropolitan Riveters are the fourth seed and will play the fifth seed, the Minnesota Whitecaps, on March 25 (7:30 pm in Florida).

A snapshot of the playoff history between the Riveters and Whitecaps, who will meet for the third time. Keep in mind that Minnesota has effectively ended the Rivs’ season three years running; the Riveters' last game in Lake Placid was a 1-0 loss to the Whitecaps (January 26, 2021).

Minnesota wins 1-0 (March 8, 2020)

Minnesota wins 5-1 (March 15, 2019)

A snapshot of the history between the Beauts and Pride, who will meet in the postseason for the fifth time. The first two seasons in the NWHL they met with the Isobel Cup on the line, and keep in mind that Season 1’s ICF was a best-of-3 series. Buffalo has ended Boston’s season the last three times they played in the playoffs.

Boston wins 4-3 (OT) March 11, 2016

Boston wins 3-1 March 12, 2016

Buffalo wins 3-2 March 19, 2017

Buffalo wins 3-2 (OT) March 17, 2018

Buffalo wins 4-0 March 9, 2019