The National Women's Hockey League and its six teams will head to Lake Placid, New York for a single-site, two-week season taking place between January 23 and February 5. Each team will play at least seven games over that time frame, with most games broadcast on Twitch. The playoff semifinal games, as well as the Isobel Cup Final, will be televised on NBC Sports Network in the United States.
Today's preview will cover three of the league's teams: the Buffalo Beauts, the Metropolitan Riveters and the Connecticut Whale.
(In rosters listed below, players listed in italics are returning players from last season. Keep in mind that rosters may change on short notice due to player availability and COVID protocols.)
Forwards: Hunter Accursi, Brittany Colton (F/D), Erin Gehen, Jordan Juron, Iveta Klimášová, Kristin Lewicki, Autumn MacDougall, Cassidy MacPherson, Kayla Meneghin, Brooke Stacey, Neve Van Pelt, Taylor Wasylk
Defense: Lenka Čurmová, Meg Delay, Whitney Dove, Dominique Kremer, Alyson Matteau, Marie-Jo Pelletier
Goalies: Caty Flagg, Carly Jackson, Kelsey Neumann
Note: Per The Ice Garden, Lisa Chesson, Kelly O'Sullivan & Emma Ruggiero are not joining the Beauts in Lake Placid.
With a mix of returning players and newcomers, the Buffalo Beauts will look to rebound off of their second-worst season in franchise history, and the first season in which the team failed to reach the Isobel Cup Final.
The Beauts will head to Lake Placid without captain and leading scorer Taylor Accursi, who recorded 25 points last season, including 16 goals. Accursi's job with the Ontario Provincial Police will prevent her from joining her team. The good news is that Buffalo returns Brooke Stacey to its roster, bringing some offensive firepower back to the squad. Stacey left the team in the middle of last season and gave birth to her son five months ago.
Expect defender Marie-Jo Pelletier to contribute on the offense, but also keep an eye out for Erin Gehen and Cassidy MacPherson, who will be looking to improve on their quieter performances from last season. Newcomers like Autumn MacDougall and Alyson Matteau, along with the return of veteran Lisa Chesson to the blueline, will help bolster the Beauts' lineup, too.
Buffalo has seen a lot of roster turnover heading into this season. Corinne Buie and Sara Bustad signed with the Whitecaps; Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Mariah Fujimagari, and Becki Bowering are just a few of the notable names who are gone from last season. Buie is by far the most significant loss here, as the team's former captain and a gritty, hardworking forward, but Fujimagari's absence will be noted, too.
They've acquired a pair of new goaltenders: Caty Flagg, who recorded a 1.84 GAA with UMass-Boston last season, and Carly Jackson, who posted a 1.90 GAA with the University of Maine. Neumann returns as the lone veteran in net, but even she has only actually seen ice time in a small handful of NWHL games.
For those returning players, they'll kick off the 2021 NWHL season right where they left off: against the Connecticut Whale. The Whale surprised the Beauts back in March 2020, defeating them by a score of 5-3 to head to the Isobel Cup semifinal. They'll then face the Boston Pride before two days off, then play three games in four days.
With this much turnover, it's hard to predict how the Beauts will fare. Head coach Pete Perram will have to manage the workload of his goaltenders as well, with so many games in such a short span of time. Last season, the team relied heavily on Mariah Fujimgari, who dressed for 22 regular-season games and played by far the most of any of their four netminders.
The Beauts allowed the most goals-against last season, so this is clearly a point where they've looked to improve in the offseason. In addition, Buffalo was also the most penalized last season, so their ability to stay out of the box and be strong on the penalty kill will be key in their success.
Here's the Beauts schedule (all times Eastern):
- Saturday, January 23 @ 7:00 PM - vs. Connecticut
- Sunday, January 24 @ 7:00 PM - at Boston
- Wednesday, January 27 @ 8:30 PM - vs. Metropolitan
- Thursday, January 28 @ 5:30 PM - at Toronto
- Saturday, January 30 @ 3:00 PM - vs. Minnesota
Forwards: Brooke Avery, Kelly Babstock, Kendall Cornine, Cailey Hutchison, Emily Janiga, Theresa Knutson, Kate Leary, Madison Packer, Mallory Rushton, Rebecca Russo, Tatiana Shatalova, Paige Voight
Defense: Kiira Dosdall-Arena, Samantha Fieseler, Leila Kilduff, Sammy Kolowrat, Jayne Lewis, Rebecca Morse, Allie Olnowich, Bridgette Prentiss, Saroya Tinker
Goalies: Tera Hofmann, Sonjia Shelly, Zoe Zisis (practice only)
The Metropolitan Riveters have a core of returning players which should put them in a good position for success heading into the two-week season in Lake Placid. Last season, the Riveters finished third in the league standings but fell 1-0 to the Minnesota Whitecaps in the Isobel Cup semifinal.
Perhaps the best news for the Riveters is the sheer number of returning players, including all of the team's leading scorers. Captain Madison Packer is back for her sixth season with the team, after recording a career-high 34 points last year.
Also returning: Leary, Cornine, Rushton, Shatalova, Morse, Hutchison... need I continue? Metropolitan returns most of their offensive core and a handful of their big defensive players, and bringing that consistency into season six means the Riveters are coming into Lake Placid with a solid skeleton and team chemistry already built from last season.
Just like with Buffalo, goaltending is where things get interesting for the Riveters. Sam Walther, who played the second-most minutes of any NWHL netminder last season, is gone. Replacing her won't be easy, but GM Kate Whitman Annis has brought in Tera Hoffmann, who recorded a .891 save percentage in her last season at Yale, and Sonjia Shelly, who dressed for 13 games with the Whale last year.
Head coach Ivo Mocek said he is "very confident" with the team he's bringing to Lake Placid, and it isn't hard to see why. Packer finished the season third in the league in point scoring; Leary was tied for fourth in the league in goals, and Packer's five power-play goals were the most among all NWHL players. Jayne Lewis was also an impressive addition on the backend last season, and she contributed offensively, too: she averaged 1.5 points per game.
Expect the additions of Emily Janiga and Saroya Tinker to help push this team over the top; Janiga has played with the Beauts, the CWHL's Vanke Rays, and the PWHPA and brings a nice edge to the Riveters. Tinker spent the last four years at Yale and could see ice time on the Riveters' top defensive pairing this season.
The Riveters will kick off the season with a game against the Toronto Six on the first day of action in Lake Placid, and they'll want to come out swinging. One point where they'll have to improve from last season: the power play. Although Packer was excellent on the advantage individually, the Riveters as a team capitalized on just 15 percent of their power-play opportunities.
Here's the Riveters schedule (all times Eastern):
- Saturday, January 23 @ 1:00 PM - vs. Toronto
- Sunday, January 24 @ 4:00PM - at Connecticut
- Tuesday, January 26 @ 5:30 PM - vs. Minnesota
- Wednesday, January 27 @ 8:30 PM - at Buffalo
- Saturday, January 20 @ 6:00 PM - vs. Boston
Forwards: Kaycie Anderson, Alexa Aramburu (possibly practice only), Hanna Beattie (F/D), Maddie Bishop, Amanda Conway, Kayla Friesen, Grace Klienbach, MacKenzie Lancaster, Katelynn Russ, Sarah Schwenzfeier, Emma Vlasic, Janine Weber, Alyssa Wohlfeiler
Defense: Shannon Doyle, Nicole Guagliardo, Laurel Hill, Tori Howran, Maggie LaGue, Taylor Marchin, Elena Orlando
Goalies: Mariah Fujimagari (unconfirmed), Abbie Ives, Brooke Wolejko
Historically, the Connecticut Whale have struggled hard for the last few NWHL seasons. They've finished last in the league in each of the last four seasons and won just two of 24 games last season, their lowest winning percentage in franchise history, and scored a league-low 39 goals. Their eight-percent power play was also the worst among the league's five teams.
Despite all of that, and against perhaps all of the odds, the Whale made it to the Isobel Cup semifinals last season after surprising Buffalo with a huge 5-3 victory in the play-in game. Although they eventually fell to the Pride, this was a significant win for the Whale and proved that truly, anything can happen in this league. The same can certainly be said of the upcoming two-week stint in Lake Placid, when all it will take is a good winning streak or a small handful of losses to make a big difference for any given team.
That's where this season's format could help or hurt the Whale as a historically inconsistent team. The "regular season" games are essentially meaningless, when it comes down to it. Yes, they're important for seeding - but what will matter is how teams perform in the round-robin games, which will then determine which four teams move onto the semifinals. All it takes are a couple of solid performances there, and the Whale can find themselves in the playoff picture again to capitalize on the single-elimination format.
Like the Riveters, the Whale have a decent core of returning players. Anderson and Doyle led the team with 11 points each last season, while Vlasic and Schwenzfeier are also returning. Brooke Wolejko also returns to Connecticut after posting a 3.62 GAA and .914 save percentage last season. Others including Janine Weber, Elena Orlando, and Hanna Beattie help bring a veteran presence to the squad, too.
But while the Whale have a nice group of returners, they've also lost some players. Sonjia Shelly, who appeared in 12 games in net, has joined the Riveters. Kayla Meneghin, who posted eight points in 14 games last season, signed with the Beauts. Jordan Brickner re-signed with the team after posting seven points in 10 games last season, but she won't be joining them in Lake Placid after all. Melissa Samoskevich was set to join the Whale after spending last season with Brynäs IF and the PWHPA, but she, too, can't make it to the play site.
The question is: have the Whale done enough in the offseason to bolster their team and make a difference? Can they feed off the energy from that game against Buffalo so many months ago (it feels like a lifetime ago) and remember that all it takes is one win, then another, to make a huge difference in whether their season ends or keeps going?
Here's the Whale schedule (all times Eastern):
- Saturday, January 23 @ 7:00 PM - at Buffalo
- Sunday, January 24 @ 4:00 PM - vs. Metropolitan
- Wednesday, January 27 @ 5:30 PM - vs. Boston
- Thursday, January 28 @ 8:30 PM - at Minnesota
- Saturday, January 30 @ 12:00 PM - at Toronto
Previews for the Toronto Six, Metropolitan Riveters, and Minnesota Whitecaps will be posted later this week. Stay tuned for Part II.
(Header image: NWHL)