NWHL Stock Report: Fisticuffs in Buffalo

“Buffalo gals, won’t you throw hands tonight...”

For the first time in NWHL history, all five teams were in action in a single weekend. It did not disappoint. Twenty combined goals were scored in three games, a league veteran hung up the skates and yes, there was even a scrap (sort of).

With another full weekend of games coming up, let’s take a look at who’s hot, who’s not and who to keep an eye on.

Trending up: Blake Bolden, BUF | 2 assists vs MET
The Buffalo Beauts are on a three-game winning streak, yet still find themselves in an “all hands on deck” situation. Less than a week after defender Sarah Edney announced her departure from the team, veteran Sarah Casorso declared Saturday’s game her last.

Casorso’s final game as a Beaut was cut short by an altercation with the Riveters’ Madison Packer (more on that in a bit). In both the short and long term, there is now heightened pressure on the Beauts’ blueline. As if there hasn’t been enough heat on Buffalo already this season.

One of the defenders the Beauts will need to step up is 27-year-old Blake Bolden, and she has been answering the call. Bolden notched a pair of assists on Saturday, one on the powerplay, and is currently riding a four-game point streak. She also tied her season-best with five shots on goal.

Buffalo generally does a very good job getting to the high-danger scoring areas, particularly the slot. Bolden in particular has been shading more towards the half-wall both on the rush and when situated in the offensive zone, which opens up space for the forward positioned between the hashmarks. In the above play, Bolden waits for Maddie Elia to glide to the inside of the hashmarks and grooves the puck through a trio of surrounding sticks.

Bolden has always been a strong puck mover dating back to her days as captain of the Boston College Eagles. She and Emily Pfalzer have formed a formidable tandem on the Beauts’ top pair.

With some roster turnover and first place well within reach, Buffalo will need Blake Bolden to continue to be an anchor for the final push. They will have this weekend off as they prepare for a big home tilt against the Pride the following Saturday.

Trending down: Madison Packer, MET | Facing one-game suspension
The hits just keep on coming for the Metropolitan Riveters.

It’s bad enough this season has gone down the tubes like Drano, but now they will be without Madison Packer for their battle this weekend against the Boston Pride. Packer, who has a bit of a history with Sarah Casorso, got tied up and began trading some gloved shots with the Beauts defender. Who can blame her. The four-year vet has watched this team burn up like a re-entering space shuttle and the Rivs were down 4-1 at the time of the kerfuffle.

The incident resulted in a game misconduct for both parties, cutting Casorso’s final game short. It at least allowed her to finish her NWHL career with a bang and a roar from the crowd. Metro, meanwhile, will have to take on the first-place Pride without their second-best scorer.

Randy Velischek commented before the Riveters’ contest last weekend that the constant changes in the lineup has made for inconsistent execution and lackluster production. This does not help.

This will be the first game Packer misses all season. The Rivs will be on home ice this Sunday afternoon.

Trending up: Amanda Pelkey, BOS | Goal, assist in 5-4 win vs MIN
Gold Medal confidence is definitely something that has influenced this NWHL season. Amanda Kessel leads the league with 13 assists. Nicole Hensley has utterly dominated in goal with a league-leading .947 save percentage, two shutouts and 1.25 goals-against average to go with her 3-1 record.

And of course, there’s the Gold Medal Trio of Gigi Marvin, Haley Skarupa and Amanda Pelkey in Boston. Skarupa is fourth in the league in points, trailing the lead by only four. Marvin is tied for fifth in goals and has 10 points on the year. Pelkey, who had a pair of assists in Pyeongchang last February, has four goals and four assists on the season.

Pelkey probably will not be winning the scoring title this season, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t one of the most important players on the Pride’s roster. The diminutive winger had seven goals in 16 games back in 2015-16 as well as four playoff points in four games to help seal Boston’s only Isobel Cup to date. She then made the NWHL All-Star team in 2016-17 before taking a year off to compete in the Olympics.

Now in her third year with Boston, she has accumulated seven points in her last seven games. Given that Boston struggled mightily to establish offensive consistency last season with so many of their key players participating in international competition, the return of Olympians like Pelkey, Marvin and Skarupa has been a godsend.

Pelkey graduated from the University of Vermont as their all-time leading scorer and it’s easy to see why. She has tremendous control of her stick and strength for her size. In the above clip, she lifts the stick of Emma Stauber, who has four inches on her, chips the puck behind the net and deliberately lurks behind the goal line waiting for an opportune moment to pounce on the loose puck.

That is the kind of seasoned maneuver an Olympian brings to the table.

Trending down: Literally anyone not on the top line in Connecticut
The Connecticut Whale have two games in hand on the Metropolitan Riveters and one fewer win. Though they are currently caught in a four-game skid, the Whale still have a chance at overtaking the Riveters and claiming home-ice advantage in the 4-vs-5 playoff game.

Unfortunately, they have no more remaining games against Metro. They visit Minnesota for a pair of games this weekend, but will need a lot more from their depth scorers if they want any chance at making up ground.

The top line of Nina Rodgers, Katerina Mrázová and Emily Fluke combine for 10 goals and 11 assists. The entire rest of the team combines for seven goals and eight assists. Excluding the top line, two players have more than one point: defender Shannon Doyle and forward Michelle Löwenhielm, each with five.

That simply isn’t good enough.

Stealing games by relying on a goal or two from the top line and asking the goaltender to carry the rest of the load is not necessarily an impossible task, but it is not a recipe for success. That is the entire reason the Whale were eliminated from last year’s playoffs, after all. They simply lacked the offensive weaponry to muster more than 13 shots on goal against a much more dominant Riveters team.

A lot has changed since then for both teams, but the point remains that the Connecticut Whale desperately need someone, anyone, to contribute. The Whale have scored more than two goals in a game only three times this season, and they lost two of the three contests.

All three times were against the Riveters.

This particular trend may bode well for the inevitable date with Metro in the play-in game, but then what? If the Whale want to get serious about upsetting the top seed in the semi-finals, they will need more activity outside of their top four forwards.

An ideal candidate would be Jamie Goldsmith, who had three goals last season and a 12% shooting percentage. She scored her first goal two weeks ago in a 6-3 loss to the Riveters.

Trending up: Amanda Boulier, MIN | Goal, 3 assists, 6 SOGs in 2 games
Speaking of offensive weaponry, one player the Connecticut Whale would positively love to have back in their midst right about now is Watertown defender Amanda Boulier. Boulier had an active weekend in the Whitecaps’ tour of New England, collecting an assist and three shots on goal in a Saturday loss to Boston and a goal and two assists on three more shots in a win over the Whale.

Truth be told, though Boulier and defensive partner Lee Stecklein are far and away the highest scoring defensive tandem in the league, I haven’t been enamored with their play as a whole this season. The Whitecaps have lost four games this season, have allowed four or more goals in each loss (21 total) and the spotty net-front coverage of their top pair has been a major reason why. It’s something that was broken down in the Whitecaps’ mid-season report card earlier not long ago.

The reason one accepts the frustration derivative of this style of play is because when the pair clicks, they click in a big way. Boulier was active moving the puck up ice all afternoon Sunday, setting up the first two goals before uncorking a lethal slapshot like a bottle of Dom Pérignon for a tally of her own.

Boulier now has four goals and six assists on the season. There’s no denying she is one of the best offensive defenders in the league. It’s just establishing consistency in her own zone that has proven to be an issue this season, both for Boulier and the team as a unit. If the Caps on the whole can mark their assignments and protect the puck in their own zone more effectively, then they would certainly be more of a threat to win the regular season title.

That starts with their top pair.