Sunday’s game against the Connecticut Whale had promise, but didn’t quite end the way the Riveters wanted. There were some “beautiful goals,” including a career first for Taylor Holze. However, the Riveters comeback was stymied by Whale veteran Kelly Babstock, who earned a hat trick in Newark. Riveters goaltender Katie Fitzgerald had a performance just shy of the headbutt stops and flair fans have become accustomed to this season. Lastly, players are still acknowledging that a 60-minute game is missing from the Riveters arsenal. Here is the good, the bad, and the ugly consequences of Sunday’s 4-2 defeat.
The good: Beautiful goals
Earlier in the season, forward Rebecca Russo wanted nothing more than shots on net. In a postgame interview she commented, “A shot’s a shot; you gotta shoot on net.” Now, the NWHL assists leader (8) has not only seen more goals, she’s even been able to set them up. Russo and Courtney Burke, newest owner of the Riveter of the Game hat, put on a passing clinic en route to Holze’s first career goal early in the second period.
Less than a minute later, Ashley “Stretch” Johnston got in on the action with a mean toe drag to fool the defense and sling the puck past Nicole Stock. Although excited for the goal, Johnston jokingly commented, “You’ll never see it again.” Nonetheless, stickhandling is something that she has been working on. After a few hand injuries, including one that required 10 stitches on her finger, Johnston was happy to be strong enough to whip out some filthy moves.
Unfortunately, Stock and the Whale conceded nothing after Stretch’s second-period goal. A minute after Johnston tied the game, Kelly Babstock collected her second goal of the night. Her strong shot took an odd bounce, off Kaleigh Fratkin, that fooled Fitzgerald and found the net.
The bad: The power play
The Riveters have the faceoff wins leader (Alexa Gruschow — 94), assists leader (Russo — 8), and the 5th overall leader in shots (Madison Packer — 30) on the same line. Russo is tied for second in points with Alex Carpenter, behind Babstock. Fitzgerald has more saves (177) than any goalie in the league. Only Brianne McLaughlin sees even close to the same number of shots on goal as Fitzgerald. The improvements to the defense, speed, and overall skill of the team have been noted over and over again. So, what’s missing?
For one thing, an efficient power play. For the second week in a row, New York went 0-5 on the power play and gave up a shorthanded goal. The Riveters can’t seem to maintain possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Teams have held the Riveters to a 13.9% power play percentage, while scoring four shorthanded goals.
Additionally, this season the Riveters come off as erratic. Last year, any given loss was unlikely to be caused by a lack of effort or focus. However, this season, the Riveters have shown this particular weakness since opening weekend in Buffalo. Small breakdowns cause large headaches for New York. So, what will Chad Wiseman and his staff do differently to bring the message home?
The ugly: Wiseman’s wrath
The time the Riveters spend on the ice during the week is an integral part to game day preparation. Johnston sees the two practice sessions per week as the perfect time to knuckle down. “Practice is a great time for us to battle, grind, and really push each other to be better ... if we play harder on each other in practice, then you’re ready for a game. You know you’re ready. You’re battle tested.”
On Tuesday, the common enemy was Chad Wiseman. As much as one can read into tweets, this one from Packer seems to indicate Wiseman worked his team rather hard at practice.
Athletes can likely commiserate with having a tough practice after a less than ideal performance. Coaches might work a team hard to maintain discipline and focus. From Amanda Kessel in Buffalo, to Taylor Holze last weekend, players have admitted to the lack of a 60-minute game throughout the season. “That was two points that we really needed, and we didn’t do what we had to,” said Holze on Sunday.
It cannot go unstated that the Riveters lost key pieces before the first home game in Jaime Leonoff and Kessel. Additionally, the retirement of Morgan Fritz-Ward leave a hole in a roster that was already short a practice player. However, these uncontrollable aspects of the game cannot overshadow the work needed to earn a win. “It’s almost January, we’ve got to be dialed in one hundred percent of the time,” said Johnston. Perhaps the intensity of practice on Tuesday was a way to squeeze more out of a team with plenty of talent, but that continues to come up short on the scoreboard.
What comes next?
So, how do the Riveters recover in time to face Connecticut again on Sunday? For Holze, the team needs to get back to basics. “It’s [about] cleaning it up a bit, making things more basic, playing as a team.” She added, “We need to buy into the team system. We’re not a team of superstars, we’re our best when playing as a team.”
It was announced today that Connecticut will be without Kelly Babstock. She was issued a one game suspension for an illegal hit that caused an injury to New York forward Bray Ketchum. Babstock is a major loss to the Whale, who are already missing Dana Trivigno, Haley Skarupa and Kelli Stack, who are traveling USA Hockey.
Despite who takes the ice for Connecticut, the Riveters will do well to focus on the small things come Sunday. Will focusing on the little things earn the team a victory over Connecticut? That is yet to be seen. However, with a break after Sunday — the next game won’t be until Jan. 7 — signs of progress would be ideal for a team looking to climb up from the basement.