The Connecticut Whale are a victory away from their first-ever Isobel Cup Final. The Minnesota Whitecaps are one win from advancing to the Final for the third straight year and the golden opportunity to keep the Cup in the State of Hockey.
The stakes are high and the pressure enormous for these uniquely different teams, making for a highly-anticipated Isobel Cup Semifinal between the Whale and Whitecaps on March 26 on NBCSN and Twitch. To preview the big game, we spoke with Minnesota co-head coach Ronda Engelhardt and Connecticut assistant coach Laura Brennan to get their insights before they made their way to Massachusetts.
To hear the confidence in the voices of their coaches, Connecticut and Minnesota expected to be here. When Whale workouts officially began in October, Brennan and head coach Colton Orr completely changed the mindset of their team.
“We placed a focus on winning the Isobel Cup,” said Brennan.
They had their reasons. In the offseason of 2020, the Whale added a long list of first-year players with a level of skill they haven’t had since the NWHL’s inaugural season. Draft picks Maggie LaGue and Tori Howran arrived to enhance the blueline. Forwards Kayla Friesen, Amanda Conway, and Maddie Bishop injected some much-needed offense. Quinnipiac’s Abbie Ives joined Brooke Wolejko to give the Whale as strong a goaltending tandem as any team in the NWHL.
“You could tell from the pace of play at the first practices that we had the talent to contend,” said Brennan, a native of White Bear Lake, Minn. who played collegiately at Quinnipiac and Minnesota State and professionally in Europe and for the Whale. “We knew we needed more offense up-front and that was addressed in the draft and with our signings. We dedicated a lot of time to mental preparation and having a full-team commitment. The skill was there, but we needed to mold a group of people who really cared about each other and were prepared to go through the wall for one another. I think, as you saw in the opening round in Lake Placid, especially in the win over Boston, we were successful.”
In Minnesota, expectations for the Whitecaps are as high as Seth Rogan by lunchtime.
“Our goal here will always be the Isobel Cup and nothing less,” said Engelhardt, who
played for the Whitecaps from 2004-2006 after an extraordinary playing career at the University of Minnesota, where she was a two-time First Team All American. “That said, we knew there would be some challenges and unknowns this season. When workouts started in October, we didn’t know what the NWHL season would actually be. We knew we had a great team, but the rest of the league got stronger. Toronto was going to be good. Buffalo added a great goalie and put together an excellent defense, and the Riveters and Connecticut made significant upgrades. Boston, our top rivals going back to the cancelled Cup Final last year, drafted a bunch of really good players.”
“I give our team a lot of credit,” the coach continued. “Although we didn’t know what the season would be, from the first practice until we left for Lake Placid, we were committed and ready to play.”
Although they did not add nearly as many new faces as Connecticut – the legendary Whitecaps organization is so deep in talent and experience, they didn’t need to – Minnesota plucked a pair of youngsters in the 2020 NWHL Draft that stood out in those early practices.
“Maddie Rowe is a big, strong defender with experience in big college games, and Haley Mack’s speed and grit were noticeable,” said Engelhardt. “Jack, Slomo (assistant coach Laura Slominski) and I loved how Rowe and Mack were so eager to learn.”
Engelhardt and Brennan command so much respect that when they go out of their way to acknowledge players for making a major impact, it’s notable.
For Engelhardt, that player is Stephanie Anderson, the 5-9 forward who joined the Whitecaps in 2019 after two seasons in China in the CWHL, a collegiate career with the U. of Minnesota and Bemidji State, and a gold medal with the U.S. National Team at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in 2015. In the semifinal on Friday, expect to see Anderson centering a line with Meghan Lorence and Mack on the wings.
“We have a team filled with dedicated players, but Stephanie Anderson’s commitment is at another level,” said Engelhardt. “She came into camp this season with an unbelievably enthusiastic outlook. Her work ethic at every practice sets a tone. Stephanie puts in a lot of time on her own to improve her game. She watches a lot of hockey and she will find outdoor ice every chance she gets. She asks good questions of the coaching staff. I feel that for these playoff games, she’s someone we can count on.”
In Connecticut, Brennan said the acquisition of NWHL veteran Alyssa Wohlfeiler was a game-changer for the Whale. Last season with Boston, Wohlfeiler had 5 goals and 11 assists for 16 points in just 14 games. In four games with the Whale in Lake Placid, she led the team in points with five. At age 31, Wohlfeiler is playing some of the best hockey of a long career that has taken her from Northeastern to the CWHL to Europe and three seasons in the NWHL.
“Wohlfy means so much to our team,” said Brennan. “Her love for the game rubbed off on all of us when we started training. Her dedication to her workout regimen is amazing and she’s able to play at such a high level because she continues to sharpen her skills. For a massive playoff game against a tough and experienced team like the Whitecaps, Wohlfy’s going to be one of our leaders.”
As a former goalie and current netminding instructor, Brennan knows this semifinal could come down to whether the Whale goaltender matches the performance of NWHL legend Amanda Leveille, who has won a pair of Isobel Cups. Brennan expressed confidence in Connecticut’s impressive tandem of Wolejko and Ives.
“Colton and the staff built our team from the net out,” said Brennan. “In Brooke and Abbie, we have two goalies you can’t go wrong with. They both have great size and fill the net, but they also are extremely athletic and read the game well.”
While Allie Morse has been solid every time the Whitecaps call her name, Lev is Lev is Lev…and that’s who’ll be in net Friday night.
“The thing with Lev is, no matter how much she has accomplished in the NCAAs and in the NWHL, she continues to seek ways to get better,” said Engelhardt. “She may be quiet, but she’s the ultimate competitor.”
Brennan expressed admiration for Leveille, but stressed that goalies can be beat if teams execute properly in the offensive zone.
“Leveille has proven over the years to be one of the great goaltenders in women’s hockey – especially in the big moments,” said Brennan. “We’re going to have to make it tough on her and take away her line of sight when our forwards get the chance.”
The Rumble in Brighton on Friday night – LIVE on the NBC Sports Network with Kate Scott, A.J. Mleczko and Caley Chelios on the call – is a moment the coaches and players wondered if they’d ever see. This, as every sports league has said, has been a season unlike any other. When practicing for months starting back in October, the NWHL’s teams were not sure if games would ever be scheduled. Then Lake Placid happened, with its successes and setbacks and the suspension of the season just 36 hours before the semifinals.
But the NWHL charged forward, setting up the playoffs this weekend at Warrior Ice Rink, home of the fourth-seeded Boston Pride, who play No. 1 Toronto in the first semi on Friday.
“We appreciate the opportunity the NWHL has given us to defend the Cup,” said Engelhardt. “We didn’t know if we’d ever get to this moment.”
Not everyone will get there. The Whitecaps will be without top defenders Sydney Baldwin and Emma Stauber, among others. Standout forward Janine Weber is one of a few key players expected to be out for the Whale.
On the other hand, Minnesota will have the services of all-star defender Amanda Boulier, who arrived in Lake Placid in time to play in her team’s scheduled playoff-seeding game against the Whale, only to see it cancelled 30 minutes before faceoff. If anyone can make up for the loss of Baldwin and Stauber, it’s the gifted and clutch Boulier. For the Whale, the in-the-nick-of-time arrival of former USNT forward Melissa Samoskevich at The Pod has the potential to be the biggest deadline acquisition in any North American hockey league in 2021.
As they prepared for their final practices before leaving for Boston, the coaches shared some priorities for their teams.
“From the drop of the puck, we have to play Whale hockey – which for us means being the toughest team to play against in the league,” said Brennan. “We have to be physical against the Whitecaps. There’s so much talent and speed in their lineup. Getting the first goal would be ideal, too.”
“We have to out-work the Whale and find scoring chances,” said Engelhardt. “Connecticut is a tough opponent. They are stronger than they have ever been. But we will be ready. I love our team and every time we step on the ice, we are representing Minnesota and we’re proud to do it this week on the national stage. This is going to be a great game and an incredible moment for women’s hockey.”
[The NWHL’s communications head from the beginning of its second season until his resignation last month, Chris Botta has written for The New York Times, Sports Business Journal, Sports Illustrated, The Hockey News and SNY, among other outlets]