Now that the 2016 Four Nations tournament is complete, the NWHL will resume play. It's an all New York weekend as the Riveters (0-3) travel to face the Beauts (1-3) for a two game series. The teams have yet to face off this season, but early performances from both indicate that we can expect a good battle. TIG writers Angelica and Erica break down what to watch for this weekend:
Expectations for the match-up?
Angelica Rodriguez: Expect a pretty even game over the course of at least two periods. Both of these teams are similar in that they can get off to an early jump given the chance, but the real question will be which team can sustain it for a full game, and also which defense can hold it together better. Each of these teams has the curse of having good goaltending sabotaged by porous defense, particularly in transition. However, the Beauts offense could have the upper hand; Kelley Steadman might not be in the lineup for Saturday’s game, but it’s not just her game anymore. Her linemates Emily Janiga and Shiann Darkangelo have made a significant impact together, and secondary scorers like Devon Skeats, Kourtney Kunichika, and Corinne Buie have all chipped in. Megan Bozek has provided some offense from the blueline, as can Anne Schleper and Emily Pfalzer.
Erica Ayala: The Riveters will need an early offensive start, and a shutdown defensive finish to defeat the Beauts. Of the 17 goals Buffalo has allowed this season, six have come in the first period. For the Riveters, 67% of the team's goals have come in the 1st period. On the flip side, Buffalo scores nearly 60% of their goals in the 3rd period. Offensively, Miye D’Oench leads the team in goals, and trails behind only Madison Packer in shot attempts. If Amanda Kessel returns from injury, that will be huge for New York. Regardless, possession and shots on goal must be a focus going into the weekend series.
Who will start in goal?
AR: At this point, it's a toss-up. Neither Leveille nor Brianne McLaughlin have posted incredible numbers for Buffalo at this point, though each has managed to play well in relief for the other (and let's remind everyone of just how disorganized the Buffalo blueline has been early on in games). I can see it once again being a split between the two this weekend. There's also Kelsey Neumann, the Beauts’ practice goalie, to consider. She impressed during free agent camp and is fully capable of starting a game this weekend should she be in the lineup.
EA: I believe it could be anybody for the Rivs as well. Chad Wiseman has been noncommittal on the goalie front, stating he wants to keep healthy competition alive. Both have done well in net, keeping New York in games amid defensive breakdowns. The Riveters need to walk away with a win this weekend. My guess is Shin will get first crack at the Beauts, but Fitzgerald will be ready to step in, if needed.
Biggest improvement since the first season?
AR: Special teams. The penalty kill has especially benefited from having two bigger players like Shiann Darkangelo and Kelley Steadman on it. Both have found success covering the points, getting sticks in the passing lanes and forcing shorthanded opportunities. As a result, the PK is averaging 95 percent a game right now, which is huge. The power play is also finding its legs, averaging about 25 percent a game.
EA: The defensive capabilities of the Riveters has improved. Players like Milica McMillen and Courtney Burke bring size, which plays into the physical game the Riveters are known to play. Additionally, Kaleigh Fratkin and Michelle Picard are defensemen who can help build the offense from the back, something New York struggled with last season.
Biggest challenge so far in the second season?
AR: Consistency. A full 60 minute game has been hard to come by -- while the Beauts have shown they can make a game interesting late, they have trouble carrying the second period, which is a big part of why their record is what it is. It's unclear what the cause of their loss of focus from first to second period really is, seeing as they haven't yet carried a lead into first intermission this season. Maybe the ice really is slanted -- who knows? Either way, the Beauts have to figure it out quickly if they want to pull up to .500 heading into Thanksgiving.
EA: I’d have to echo Angie, consistency. With an improved defense, more speed and huge offensive talent, we have yet to see the Riveters play their game for a complete game. Kessel’s injury has certainly had an impact, but the team is still working to build chemistry and an identity. During the last game in Boston, New York had difficulty running the offense, especially on the power play. The Riveters only attempted three shots in as many power play opportunities. If the Riveters can remain patient and disciplined, things will begin to open up.