“We need a win! We need a win,” said Riveters head coach Randy Velischek to a staff member at practice yesterday. The former New Jersey Devils defenseman is 1–6 with nine games left in his first season as head coach of the 2018 Isobel Cup Champions.
The standings and stats
After the Connecticut Whale earned a 2–1 comeback win in New Jersey Sunday, the Riveters fell to the league basement with a 1–6 record. At the top of the NWHL standings are the undefeated Minnesota Whitecaps. The newest NWHL team is perfect in six games, and with 10 to go. With a win over Buffalo Saturday, the Boston Pride — 2016 Isobel Cup champions — are in second place with a 3–2 record, followed by the 2017 champion Beauts team at 3–3. When the Connecticut Whale secured a late go-ahead goal against the Riveters on Sunday, they leapfrogged into fourth place with a 1–3 record.
The defending champions have a –16 goal differential, worst in the league. Although every team will make the playoffs, avoiding a last-place finish is certainly beneficial. With the league now having five teams, the bottom two teams will compete in a play-in game for the opportunity to enter the single-game Isobel Cup Playoffs that consist of two total rounds — the semifinal and final.
If hitting .500 on the season is the goal, the Riveters can spare only three more losses. While breaking even on the season might be a moral victory of sorts, it’s no guarantee to avoiding the play-in. So yes, the Riveters need a win! However, is the way that the Riveters get their next win equally important — if not more — to the win itself?
Playing for now or later?
“The end goal is to have this team playing the best it can possibly play come the end of the season,” Velischek told The Ice Garden Tuesday night. It’s been a conversation he and the Riveters have had for the last month. Yet the neither the team’s best form nor the wins have come just yet, and that remains a concern.
“Just for morale overall, losing breeds all kinds of stuff; a lot of it is negative,” stated Velischek. Thus, he and the team are focusing on the positives. Then team did look in good spirits for what is likely the last full team skate (one of the negatives of this American Thanksgiving week) before facing Connecticut again.
Return of Burke, Kessel, and D’Oench
Defender of the Year (2018) Courtney Burke will also rejoin the Riveters, and thus will rejoin the Riveters power play. Burke was out of the lineup since suffering an upper body injury against the Minnesota Whitecaps in the season’s opening series. Burke is exceptional for the Riveters on the power play.
According to data analysis done by The Ice Garden’s own Mike Murphy, Burke got all 10 of her primary points (3 goals, 7 assists) on the power play. She led the Riveters to a 25.6% success rate on the power play last season. This year, the Riveters are shooting at a 7.7% clip on the skater advantage. In addition to returning Burke to the power play, she is expected to rejoin her defensive partner and fellow Wisconsin alumna Jenny Ryan on the blue line.
Also among the good news is the return of Amanda Kessel to the top line. The 2018 Olympic gold medalist has assisted on six of the 11 team goals, good for second overall in helpers throughout the league. After missing Sunday with an upper body injury, she is expected to rejoin Rebecca Russo and Riveters 2017–18 top scorer Madison Packer on a line.
Additionally, 2018 league MVP Alexa Gruschow is expected to center the second unit with Miye D’Oench and Audra Richards on either wing. Gruschow from D’Oench was the winning combination in the 2018 Isobel Cup final. RPI alumna Gruschow has not made much of an impact so far this season after a breakout sophomore season (11 goals, 14 assists). Perhaps the return of D’Oench — who missed the first part of the season — will bring some familiarity and consistency to Gruschow and help her game. Along with the rookie Richards — who is tied with Packer for most goals (3) on the team — this has the potential to be a line to watch.
Sass tapped to bring the spark
Finally, Velischek told The Ice Garden that Kimberly Sass, not Katie Fitzgerald, will start on Sunday against the Whale. “It wasn’t predicated on the schedule,” he said when asked if Sass was starting to give Connecticut a new look.
“Sass had a really, really strong training camp ... she’s looked terrific in practice. She’s worked on her game and, you know what, I think she deserves it.”
It’s been a tough run for 2017 Goaltender of the Year Katie Fitzgerald. In seven appearances, she sits with a .865 save percentage, allowing an average of 3.66 goals against per game. While frustrating, Fitzgerald is leaning on her teammates and their goalie trio to overcome the slump. “We as a team have to keep in mind the big picture; I myself do too,” the Illinois native told The Ice Garden Tuesday night before practice.
“We have such a good goalie trio, and I’m really excited to see other goalies get playing time and create a whole unit out of us; [we’re] three very talented goalies — you can depend on any one of us at any given time,” said Fitzgerald of herself, Sass, and Sarah Bryant. She continued, “It’ll be really cool to see how we figure things out as a unit and just kind of see how we can be successful.”
Sass got her first win as a Riveter in Connecticut last season. After giving up two quick goals, Sass posted a .913 save percentage (21 of 23) and gave her team the chance to win in overtime. The win secured a 10-game winning streak for the eventual 2018 Isobel Cup champions — thanks to an overtime goal by Madison Packer, assisted by Burke and Ryan.
Much like last season, Sass is being asked to give her team enough life to come from behind and secure a win. It’s a tall order for the Colgate alum, but big games seem to be her thing.