(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
With the NWHL regular season complete, the focus of the league now heads to the upcoming Isobel Cup semifinals and final. The league also handed out several awards earlier this week.
Boston vs. Connecticut: Thursday, March 16 @ 7:30 PM Eastern
Although the Pride swept the regular-season series, anything can happen when it comes down to a one-game playoff. Both teams come into the playoffs on the heels of a loss in their final regular season game as they head into the quest for the Isobel Cup.
On paper, Boston and Connecticut are two very different teams, and of course, all the statistics lie in the Pride's favor. Boston went 16-1-0 this season with 32 points and a plus-44 goal differential. On the other hand, Connecticut was 5-12-1 in the regular season, earning 11 points and a minus-17 goal differential.
The Pride's offense is their most potent piece -- they scored a league-high 73 goals this season -- but their defense is equally strong, having allowed just 29 goals against. Of the six games between Boston and Connecticut in the regular season, the Pride won twice in shutouts and overall outscored the Whale 30-12.
Players to Watch
Boston: Brianna Decker registered 12 points (7G, 5A) against Connecticut this season. She also earned the league's scoring title and will be a dangerous offensive force. Alex Carpenter (3G, 9A) and Meghan Duggan (6G, 3A) were also strong against the Whale and will need to be contained.
Connecticut: Haley Skarupa notched seven points (4G, 3A) against the Pride this season, including a hat trick. Kelli Stack (3G, 2A) and Dana Trivigno (1G, 4A) will be other key offensive pieces for the Whale in their quest to top the Pride. They will need to show up in a big way.
New York vs. Buffalo: Friday, March 17 @ 7:30 PM Eastern
The NWHL playoff game between the New York Riveters and the Buffalo Beauts looks to be a closely-matched contest. The teams split the season series, each winning three games, and were separated by six points in the standings (with the Riveters playing one additional game).
The Riveters outscored Buffalo by a narrow 18-17 margin in the regular season, scoring three goals in each of their games against the Beauts this season. One win included a shutout, but excluding that, four of the remaining five games were decided by just one goal -- including one overtime decision and one shootout.
Both teams have strong goaltending, with Katie Fitzgerald in net as perhaps the most valuable player in a Riveters jersey this season. Brianne McLaughlin, who is set to hang up her skates after this season, is also a key piece for the Beauts, but don't discount the ability of Amanda Leveille. Both teams are coming off a win to close out the regular season, and this game really could go either way -- and if the regular season was any indication, it's going to be a close one.
Players to Watch
New York: Rebecca Russo registered a team-high seven points (1G, 6A) against Buffalo this season. Janine Weber (3G, 2A) and Alexa Gruschow (2G, 3A) also had strong performances against the Beauts in the regular season.
Buffalo: Shiann Darkangelo fit in well in her first year with the Beauts, and half of her points this season came against the Riveters (4G, 2A). Megan Bozek put up five points (3G, 2A) versus New York, while Kourtney Kunichika (0G, 5A) also played well against the Riveters.
Recapping the NWHL Awards
On March 14, the NWHL announced its end-of-season award winners. Unlike last season, when the Boston Pride swept the awards, this year's winners reflected a greater level of parity across the league.
Boston's Brianna Decker was named the Most Valuable Player for the second straight year, as chosen by the NWHL Players Association. She registered 14 goals, including four game winners, and 31 points.
Decker was also recognized as the NWHL's Leading Scorer, and her team was honored as the regular season champions after going 16-1 on the season.
Megan Bozek was named Best Defender by a media vote. Bozek was a powerhouse for the Buffalo Beauts, both offensively and defensively.
"She's difficult to play against, controls the pace of a game, rushes at will, and quarterbacks our power play," said Beauts co-head coach Craig Muni.
"She is a team leader whose international experiences have been invaluable to our rookie defenders," Muni said.
Katie Fitzgerald, a key piece for the New York Riveters this season, was named Best Goaltender by the media vote. She went 7-6-1 this season, with a 3.01 GAA and .901 save percentage.
Riveters captain Ashley Johnston was recognized with the Denna Laing Award, which is given to the player chosen by the NWHLPA who most exemplifies "the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to her sport."
"Ashley is our captain and leader, on and off the ice," said Riveters head coach Chad Wiseman in a league-released statement.
"When you see her commitment in getting from her day job hours away to our practices and games, it shows how dedicated she is, not just to the Riveters, but women's ice hockey."
The NWHL Foundation Award was given to one player from each team who most actively applies "the core values of hockey to her community, as well as growing the game and improving hockey culture." The league's general managers selected the winners.
Boston's Alyssa Gagliardi, Buffalo's Kelsey Neumann, Connecticut's Elena Orlando, and New York's Michelle Picard all won the NWHL Foundation Award.
"Every player in our league is an incredible advocate for the game, but this season, Alyssa, Kelsey, Elena and Michelle are among the very best," said league commissioner Dani Rylan.
Finally, Connecticut's Anya Battaglino, Buffalo's Harrison Browne, and New York's Rebecca Russo were selected as the NWHL Fans' Three Stars of the Season. More than 8,000 fans voted.
Browne, who also played in the NWHL All-Star Game this year thanks to a fan vote, announced his decision to leave the league after this season.
Per a league press release on March 14, he will serve as an adviser on "inclusion" next season and is pursuing a career in sports business. A New York Times article published earlier in the day said that Browne intends to undergo surgery and begin hormone therapy this summer, the latter of which which will disqualify him from returning to the NWHL, per the league's policy on transgender athletes.
Following the NWHL semifinal games on March 16 and 17, the winning teams will play for the Isobel Cup at 6:00 PM Eastern on Sunday, March 19 at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell. All games are expected to be broadcast on NWHL.zone/video.