I had a lot of questions about the Metropolitan Riveters’ defense heading into the 2021-22 season. Truth be told, it’s still hard to say what this blue line’s full potential is — Leila Kilduff is still out of the lineup with an upper-body injury and Lenka Čurmová missed the first three games of the season due to Slovakia’s Olympic qualifiers. As a result, the Rivs blue line was stretched pretty thin to start the year.
After a 2-1-1 start, it’s hard to say that the defense is holding the Riveters back. And that is really saying something with Kilduff and Čurmová missing time and Saroya Tinker, Rebecca Morse, and Kiira Dosdall-Arena all no longer in this lineup. But, it hasn’t been an easy (or spotless) start for this group.
Things have, from time to time, looked a little shaky for the Rivs in the defensive zone wish was to be expected after an all too brief preseason and starting the season without Kilduff. The blue line was perhaps at its most unsteady when Mallory Rushton, who played some defense in college, moved back for a game against the Buffalo Beauts in a game where the Rivs gave up a three-goal lead. Still, head coach Ivo Mocek seems confident in this group.
“We knew we had the players capable of stepping up, so there was not an issue,” Mocek told the Ice Garden. “It was more just being shorthanded (without Leila Kilduff) like you said. I know that Mal can play D ... but she can play to her full potential as a forward. [Saturday against the Beauts] she got exposed a couple of times and I didn’t find it fair, to be honest. So we had Lenka lined up. Lenka had just gotten back from Olympic qualification so we wanted to give her some time to get back to the group and adapt again and I think she showed that [on Sunday].”
The biggest story from the back end thus far has to be the recent signing of Colleen Murphy, who played the first two games of the season on a PTO.
Thus far, Murphy is responsible for three of the five primary points picked up by Rivs defenders this year. She’s been hard to miss in the first few weekends of the season, especially with her oversized jersey and her ability to join the rush. And the Rivs have been doing a lot of rushing with 17 goals in four games.
“It’s definitely been an easier transition for me to come in this year,” Murphy told the Ice Garden. “I played with the team two years ago, I know a lot of the girls, I know how Ivo coaches and he also gives me a lot of confidence because he knows what I can bring as a player. So far, it’s been really great.”
Murphy, who is now playing in her fourth PHF/NWHL season after her college hockey career at Northeastern, shares Mocek’s confidence in this group and what is capable of.
“I think all of our d-core is pretty confident — it’s also only our fourth game, too,” Murphy shared. “We’re all trying to kind of feel each other out, as well. The d-core is relatively is new from a few years ago and even last year, but we’re all solid and skilled enough players that I think that whoever is paired up with who we are going to be able to perform. We’re really confident in each other so far.”
Maybe part of the reason this group has looked so confident while it’s been shorthanded at the start of the year is its collective experience.
Like Murphy, new additions Rachael Ade and Kristen Barbara are both veterans. So too is Rose Alleva, who has managed to stand out just as much as Murphy through four games. Allie Olnowich, 23, is the youngest blueliner in the mix but this is her second year with the team after playing in Lake Placid. She’s been steady in her role thus far and there’s no reason to expect anything different from the Syracuse alumna moving forward.
The other factor at play here has been the exceptional neutral zone play of the Riveters’ forwards. This might be a bit of a stretch, but the Rivs, as a whole, are playing a lot like assistant coach Kelly Nash did during her time with the team — calculating and effective off the puck. That Riveters’ forecheck completely derailed the Beauts' ability to get out of their own zone on Nov. 21.
Sometimes the best defense is an effective forecheck that leads to dominating the shot share and creating more scoring chances at even strength. Or something like that. I forget how the saying goes.
If that continues throughout the season, this team could surprise a lot of people — myself included — who expected them to finish at or near the bottom of the standings. It’s also important to remember that Čurmová is not too far removed from being an All-Star with the Beauts and that Kilduff has played a lot like an All-Star for the entirety of her time with the Rivs. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves just yet.
As Colleen Murphy pointed out, it is still very early. Still, it should not be overlooked that this Riveters defense was put into a jam to start the season and they have been finding a way to get the job done.