(Photo: Ashley Intile/NWHL)
For the National Women's Hockey League, the postseason is upon us. With the regular season in the books, this weekend will feature a play-in game and two Isobel Cup semifinals. The date, time, and location for the Isobel Cup Final have not been announced yet and are presumably reliant on the results of this weekend's action.
All games will be broadcast live on the NWHL's Twitch channels.
Here's a breakdown of what to expect this weekend:
Play-In Game: Beauts vs. Whale
When: Friday, March 6 @ 8:30 PM Eastern
Where: Northtown Center, Amherst, New York
After a disappointing season that saw the team finish the lowest they've ever finished in franchise history, the Buffalo Beauts will host a critical play-in game against the Connecticut Whale on Friday night. The Beauts are, of course, the only team who has made the Isobel Cup in all four seasons of the NWHL's existence to date, but it'll be an uphill battle.
Buffalo comes into this weekend on the heels of a win over the Metropolitan Riveters, but they've lost four of their last six games dating back to mid-February. The Whale only won two games all season and have lost five straight, but with a single elimination play-in, it's anyone's game.
The Whale and Beauts haven't faced off since November 30, but Buffalo swept the season series.
Keys to Success
Buffalo: Stay out of the box. The Beauts were by far the most-penalized team in the league this season. Although their penalty kill was moderately successful (81%), it doesn't help them offensively or defensively to continually be a player down.
Connecticut: Score. It sounds simple, but the Whale had a league-low 39 goals-for this season and a minus-61 goal differential. If you can't score, you won't win – and a Connecticut team that averaged only 1.6 goals per game knows that struggle.
Players to Watch
Buffalo: The Beauts got a lot of offensive production from forward Taylor Accursi this season, as she averaged more than a point-per-game and eyed the franchise points record. She's been quiet as of late and hasn't scored since mid-February. If she can contribute in the play-in game, she could be the key piece for the Beauts.
Connecticut: Defender Shannon Doyle recorded 62 blocked shots and 17 takeaways this season. She was a staple on the Whale blueline, while also puting up 65 shots on goal (2nd-most on the team) and recording 11 points.
Semifinal #1: Pride vs. Beauts/Whale
When: Sunday, March 8 @ 2:30 PM Eastern
Where: Warrior Ice Arena, Boston, Massachusetts
Whichever team wins Friday night's play-in game will travel to Boston for Sunday's semifinal. Regardless of whether it's the Beauts or the Whale, they'll have quite the challenge on their hands to face the 23-1 Pride who are looking to find their way back to the Isobel Cup Final.
Boston, of course, swept the season series against both teams. They'll also have home-ice advantage and almost certainly play in front of a roaring, sold-out crowd at Warrior on Sunday afternoon. If we're looking at reasons why each team should win, the Pride pretty much have every box checked off. Strong offense, good defense, stellar goaltending; they play a well-rounded game, and it has paid off all year.
The caveat here is that it's just one game, and all it takes is a fluky goal here or there for the other team to come out on top. Either Buffalo or Connecticut will need to focus on proper rest and preparation for Sunday's game; they'll be coming off Friday's late-night play-in game, then traveling to Massachusetts, and then prepping for Sunday's afternoon game. It's not the quickest turnaround they've faced this season, but when you take the travel – and the stakes – into consideration, it's significant.
Keys to Success
Boston: Play your game. The Pride did a lot of things right over the course of the regular season, and it's expected that would continue into the postseason. Boston can outscore teams by huge amounts and really limit the other team's opportunities. If they just play the game the way they have all season long, they're poised for success.
Buffalo: Goaltending. As I've mentioned in the past, the Beauts now have four goaltenders on their roster. It's anyone's guess which netminder would get the start in a Sunday semifinal game, but whoever it is, they'll need to be on their A-game. The Pride's offense is so dangerous, and the last line of defense is the goaltender; that's their best chance to put themselves in a position to win.
Connecticut: Shoot, a lot. There was a game this season where the Whale were credited with only eight shots on goal in the course of 60 minutes. If Connecticut makes it to Boston, that sort of effort will fall painfully short, and make it a shooting clinic for the Pride. In order to overcome Boston's strength in net, the Whale will need to find creative ways to get the puck on net.
Players to Watch
Boston: How can you even choose one? Goaltender Lovisa Selander is likely to get the nod in net, but there's also the offensive powerhouse of Jillian Dempsey, the incredibly talented McKenna Brand, and defensive mainstay Kaleigh Fratkin.
Buffalo: Marie-Jo Pelletier was one of the Beauts' top defenders this season – not just on the defensive side of the game, but on the offense, too. She was a significant contributor to the Buffalo team and has showcased her speed and skill over the course of the season. If she can step up on both sides of the game, she could help Buffalo to victory.
Connecticut: The goaltenders. Sonjia Shelly and Brooke Wolejko both kept their team in games this season and stepped up when they were called on, even when the defense in front of them failed and the offense dropped off. When facing an offensively-powered team like Boston, the Whale's goaltending will need to be particularly strong in order to keep the score close.
Semifinal #2: Whitecaps vs. Riveters
When: Sunday, March 8 @ 12:30 PM Central
Where: TRIA Rink, St. Paul, Minnesota
In the other Isobel Cup semifinal, the Metropolitan Riveters travel west to face the second-place Minnesota Whitecaps in what should be a closely-contested battle. The Whitecaps were the better team across the board in the regular season, with 17 wins, 106 goals-for and a plus-54 goal differential, but the Riveters are looking to make it to the Isobel Cup Final for the third straight season after a tumultuous run last year.
It's hard not to think that the Whitecaps will already have an advantage heading into Sunday afternoon's game. It's their home rink; they know the ice, the atmosphere, and the rink's oddities better than anyone. The Riveters also have a long trip to Minnesota, so they'll certainly focus on keeping their legs fresh and nipping any travel bugs in the bud.
With the season on the line, Metro is also looking for a little revenge, after getting knocked out in last year's semifinal by the same Whitecaps team (who eventually won the Isobel Cup). Last season, of course, the Riveters faced weather-related travel issues that forced the postponement of that semifinal game; the rescheduling meant that not all players could make it, something the team hopefully won't have to deal with this year.
The Whitecaps and Riveters split their season series. In their first weekend series, the Whitecaps came out on top 9-2 in the first game, but the Riveters narrowly edged them 4-3 the following day. When they met again later in the season, the Riveters won the opening game 3-2, before Minnesota came out on top 5-2 the next day. In their final regular-season series, Minnesota snagged a 2-0 win before Metro won 3-1 in the next game.
Aside from the initial 9-2 pounding, the regular-season games were generally pretty close, which should indicate a similar game in the upcoming semifinal.
Keys to Success
Minnesota: Strong goaltending. Aside from the Pride, the Whitecaps allowed the fewest goals this season, by a significant margin. They allowed only 52 goals-against, compared to Metro's 91, Buffalo's 116, and Connecticut's 100. Time and time again, Amanda Leveille has showcased her skill, and she could certainly help lead the Whitecaps to yet another Isobel Cup.
Metropolitan: Stay out of the box. The Riveters were the second-most penalized team in the NWHL during the regular season, and were penalized significantly more than Minnesota. While the Whitecaps were served just 170 penalty minutes (a league low!), the Riveters had 299 PIMs. Metro is heading in to face a dangerous Minnesota team that's on a four-game winning streak, so keeping things even and not forcing themselves to play shorthanded can't hurt.
Players to Watch
Minnesota: Allie Thunstrom dominated with the Whitecaps this season. Whether she was scoring hat tricks, making great passes to teammates like Jonna Curtis, or playing a critical role on special teams (with 5 goals on special teams on the season), Thunstrom was a big part of Minnesota's success. She's a player the Riveters will need to contain.
Metropolitan: While Kate Leary didn't lead her team in scoring this season (Madison Packer held that honor), she's a dangerous forward with offensive flash. Three of her sixteen goals came on the power-play, and she made an immediate impact in her first season in the NWHL. On Thursday, Leary was named Newcomer of the Year by the media (yours truly included). She's coming into her first NWHL playoff with an opportunity to shine.We are entirely reader supported. Consider supporting this work on PATREON or making a secure, one-time donation via PAYPAL.