Grading the Whitecaps’ first half

Minnesota’s inaugural NWHL season is going well. But how well?

Minnesota’s first season in the NWHL is going swimmingly. The Whitecaps rattled off six consecutive wins to start the year. Though that streak came to an abrupt halt against the Boston Pride last weekend, they are still situated in a points tie for first place in the league standings.

Now that we’ve reached the halfway point in the season, let’s dole out some report cards.

Offense: B+

We have not seen the best of Minnesota’s offense yet. Not by a long shot. Even still, they have been exciting to watch because of their ability to generate chances at the drop of a hat.

Elk River native Jonna Curtis has turned heads by tying the league lead with seven assists. She is also second with 11 total points. Former Golden Gopher Kate Schipper is producing a point per game, with fellow alums Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein not far behind.

By my count, 13 of the Whitecaps’ 26 goals this season have been scored off a zone entry rush. Their core of forwards are so fast they put defenders through the spin cycle, breezing by them or simply out-muscling them to the net.

This kind of strategy was wildly successful against the Metropolitan Riveters in the first four games of the season. The Whitecaps outscored the Rivs 18-6 in their series. Despite being outshot by Buffalo in their two meetings, the Caps secured a pair of one-goal victories over the Beauts.

Relying so heavily on rushes and breakaways is naturally a feast-or-famine way to play. Minnesota’s offensive attack was neutralized by an equally speedy and skilled Boston Pride team. With a top-six just as capable of exploding into the zone, Gigi Marvin and company steamrolled over Minnesota by beating them at their own game.

The Whitecaps rank fourth in the league in shots-on-goal and dead last in powerplay percentage at 3.8% (1-for-26).

Speed and skill are certainly not lacking on a roster with seven players with five or more points (tied for most in the league). The talent pool is deep. Slowing things down and sustaining offensive pressure for longer would certainly improve production on the powerplay and take some pressure off the defense.

Speaking of...

Defense: B

Here’s the problem with a rush-happy offense. When the ice opens up and play becomes more helter-skelter, teams are more liable to be caught out of position while taking chances to make a play. This is the double-edged sword that the Whitecaps have chosen to wield.

The players that have scored the most frequently against Minnesota are the likes of Madison Packer (3), Gigi Marvin (3), Audra Richards (2) and Haley Skarupa (2). Others include Maddie Elia, Jillian Dempsey, McKenna Brand and Dani Cameranesi. Noticing a trend? It’s all high-caliber forwards. Only one defender had scored against the Whitecaps through their first six games, that being offensive-minded Jenny Ryan.

To beat the Caps’ defense takes a taste of their own medicine.

Coverage in front of the net disperses when there are too many moving parts. Here, Ally Thunstrom switches with defender Lee Stecklein to pursue the Boston puck carrier towards the blue line. Stecklein is left in the void, pondering the events transpiring before her and her place in all of this. The play. The game. Life itself. It may have only been a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

Where she should have been heading was back towards the slot to cover a wide open Gigi Marvin. Oops.

Another blown coverage in front, also on the Caps’s top pair. This time, Stecklein is attempting to read the shooter, and in a way, she correctly predicts that Alyssa Gagliardi will not shoot, but rather wire the puck to the doorstep for a redirection. Stecklein has her stick in the lane ready to knock the puck down.

What she miscalculates is her proximity to both Haley Skarupa and the net.

This is not to pick on Stecklein, of course. She just happens to have two of the most photogenic mishaps from the first half. Whatever lapses she may have in front of the net are collateral damages happily traded for her six assists in eight games.

Minnesota may rank third in goals-against average (2.63) and fourth in penalty killing (20/23, 87%), but Stecklein and Amanda Boulier are far and away the highest-scoring tandem in the league with 11 combined points. It’s a give and take.

Goaltending: A-

Amanda Leveille is a sensational goaltender. Let’s call it like it is, she deserved last year’s Goaltender of the Year award and was fantastic for the first six games of this season.

Hence why we should collectively forgive and forget last weekend ever happened.

It would be easy to panic, but let’s remain realistic. The Whitecaps had not played a regular season game in over a month, and their return is a back-to-back with the red-hot Boston Pride. Circumstances were not kind.

Leveille stopped 69 of 72 shots in one weekend against the Buffalo Beauts. She had a .938 save percentage with an opening night shutout in four games against the Metropolitan Riveters.

Oh yeah. She’s gonna be alright.

Overall: B+

The toughest tests lie ahead for the Minnesota Whitecaps. Yes, they are well poised for a run at first place, but they have some difficult tasks ahead of them. Six of their final eight games will be played on the road. Two will be in Buffalo, where the Beauts have won seven straight dating back to last season. Two will be in Boston against a Pride team that gave a rude introduction in their first two NWHL meetings.

Minnesota has kicked the door down and stormed into the NWHL. But to truly emerge as Isobel Cup contenders, they will need a bit of recalibration.

Time for the State of Hockey to take its show on the road.

Grading the Riveters at the halfway point of their season