Fifty-three days after the NWHL had to shutter its season in Lake Placid due to a COVID-19 outbreak, four of the league's teams will attempt to complete the Isobel Cup semifinals and final this weekend in Brighton, Massachusetts. Semifinals will be played on Friday evening, with the championship slated for Saturday. All three games will be played at Warrior Ice Arena and are closed to fans, but will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network and Twitch.
The league's Board of Governors approved the format for the upcoming playoffs, which will see the top-seeded Toronto Six take on the fourth seed, the Boston Pride. The Minnesota Whitecaps and Connecticut Whale, coming in as the second and third seeds, will square off in the other semifinal. The winning teams will move on to the Isobel Cup Final.
The Metropolitan Riveters, who were forced to withdraw from the season in Lake Placid due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests, will not be part of the playoffs. Neither will the Buffalo Beauts, who lost all but one of their six games played in Lake Placid and nearly reached the semifinals on a technicality after the Whale decided to withdraw out of an abundance of caution. However, the Board's decision allowed the Whale to re-enter the picture, leaving the Beauts out.
Teams have been allotted a maximum of 21 players, all of whom must have been contracted by the team for the entire season, and must have been eligible to play in Lake Placid earlier this year. A few players who appeared in Lake Placid won't be on the ice this weekend, including Toronto's Mackenzie MacNeil and and Taytum Clairmont, while others – notably, Melissa Samoskevich – will be. If any replacement players are named, they'll have to be approved by commissioner Ty Tumminia.
Overall, the players I spoke to all seemed to agree: teams will try to carry momentum from what they accomplished in Lake Placid, but with so much time between games, this weekend also offers a fresh start.
"Going into Lake Placid, you went from almost an entire year of not playing an organized game into so many in a short period of time, so it was definitely something to build on in terms of chemistry," said Whitecaps forward Allie Thunstrom.
"I think it's a little bit of both," said Whale defender Elena Orlando. "I think that we're really building on what we did up there, what we accomplished. But Minnesota was the one team we didn't actually get to play up there, so I think it's a little bit of starting fresh in that."
COVID-19 Health & Safety Protocols
The league has published its COVID-19 protocols for the "Championship Series" on its website. Protocols were created "by the Office of the Commissioner with guidance from qualified medical advisors."
Among the protocols listed:
- Teams were permitted to commence workouts on March 1.
- All players & staff required to complete a daily survey prior to arrival at the rink. Mandatory temperature checks are also required.
- All non-player staff must wear masks in facilities at all times. Players are required to wear masks at all times except when on the ice.
- Players & staff coming to Boston were required to receive a PCR test at least once weekly in each of the three weeks between March 1-22.
- Players, league & team staff officials, and production crew received PCR tests on Monday, March 22 with requirement for a negative test to travel. Testing will also done (rapid testing) prior to boarding transportation and upon arrival at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday.
- Rapid tests will be done on Saturday morning only if a team was exposed to a known positive or exhibits symptoms.
There are also protocols for food & drink, player conduct, and off-ice team events.
Semifinal #1: Pride vs. Six
Friday, March 26 @ 5:00 PM Eastern
Friday's first semifinal game will be just the second matchup between Boston (3-4-0) and Toronto (4-1-1) in NWHL history. The teams previously met on January 26, with the Six narrowly coming out on top with a 2-1 victory. As the top seed, Toronto may seem to have the advantage – but remember, this game is being played on Boston's home ice.
Both teams bring respectable winning streaks into Friday's contest, with Toronto on a four-game roll and Boston winning each of their last two. Both teams also have strong motivation leading them into the weekend. For the Pride – and equally for the Whitecaps, though we'll talk more about them later – these upcoming games offer a chance to finally snag the Isobel Cup that they've been waiting for since March 2020. For the Six, it's an opportunity to finish off their inaugural season with the NWHL's ultimate prize.
“We get to seize the opportunity here," said Pride forward Christina Putigna in the league's media call earlier this week. "I think we’re all just as excited as we were before and definitely have the same energy as we had going in previously... That hasn’t changed. We’re all really excited to get a second shot at it.”
"It's going to be all mental," said Six goaltender Elaine Chuli. "Who's ready to go right at the start? I think we definitely learned a lot in Lake Placid about our team, and I think we can take a lot from that."
"It's a mindset – being ready to go," Chuli said. "We've got to come out and dictate the play. We can't let the game come to us. I think we learned a lot in Lake Placid; our first game, we weren't too strong. We can't come out like that... we know how we need to come out and play."
Keys to Success: Boston likes to put a lot of shots on net, so the Six will have to try and limit their chances as much as possible. Meanwhile, Toronto was the most-penalized team in Lake Placid. Friday's game has the potential to be a high-scoring affair, as these were the two teams with the most goals in Lake Placid: Toronto recorded 21 in just six games, while Boston had 22 in seven games.
Players to Watch: Both Kaleigh Fratkin (BOS-D) and Mikyla Grant-Mentis (TOR-F) had nine points each in Lake Placid. Fratkin's contributions are primarly assists, but she also had a whopping 15 blocks and was a plus-14. Grant-Mentis, meanwhile, showcased her offensive flair with a league-high five goals and 28 shots.
Semifinal #2: Whale vs. Whitecaps
Friday, March 26 @ 8:00 PM Eastern
The evening semifinal will see Connecticut (2-2-0) and Minnesota (3-1-0) square off for the first time since March 1, 2020. The two teams never got the chance to meet in Lake Placid, and with both teams featuring bolstered rosters, this should be an interesting matchup. Both teams lost their last game in Lake Placid, but the championship weekend in Boston is a chance to start fresh.
As mentioned with Boston earlier, Minnesota may have a little extra fuel heading into the weekend as they look to finish what they started over a year ago, before COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 Isobel Cup Final. Don't count out Connecticut, however; this year's team may be the strongest iteration of the Whale we've seen yet.
"It was really devastating when everybody got sent home from Lake Placid and everything that went with it," Thunstrom said. "We didn't get to finish the season in 2020, so it just felt like another dagger. It was really disappointing to get all that way and not be able to have a closure on the season."
"When we found out that we were going to play again, it's super exciting to have the opportunity to play for the Cup but also the addition of being on NBC Sports is just a monumental opportunity," Thunstrom added.
For all four teams, getting a good start early in Friday's semifinal will be key.
"It's one game; it's not like you can make mistakes and then the next time, come back out and fix it," said Orlando. "It's important to start strong right from the drop of the puck and set the tempo, hopefully get that first goal but just keep going the whole game."
Keys to Success: For Minnesota, the key will be getting production out of some of their highly-talented offensive players. Allie Thunstrom and Jonna Curtis didn't produce a lot in Lake Placid, and with a very short weekend, there's no time like the present to find the back of the net. For Connecticut, the team will need to focus on playing their game and staying level-headed. This is the second consecutive year that the Whale have made it to the semifinal, and they remain the only one of the Founding Four teams who has yet to win the Cup.
Players to Watch: Alyssa Wohlfeiler had an impressive showing in Lake Placid, where she put up five points (1-4) in just four games. She also had two takeaways and was a plus-5. For Minnesota, keep an eye on the ever-popular Audra Richards. Richards put up three points in four games in Lake Placid and is always an offensive threat.
The winners of Friday's semifinal games will play in Saturday's championship game, slated for 7:00 PM Eastern.
Other NWHL News
- Dani Rylan Kearney, founder of the NWHL, has resigned from her position as NWHL advisor and President of W Hockey Partners, the group that owns & operates the four teams without independent ownership. Per Mike Murphy, Andy Scurto, a governor on the league's board and investor in the NWHL, has stepped into the role for the time being.
- When the Beauts resume action (presumably in the fall), they'll have a new head coach. Rhea Coad has assumed the role, replacing Pete Perram, who is relocating to Western Canada. Coad has been with the team for several seasons as both an assistant and associate coach.
- In case you missed it, there's also been talks of the league expanding to Montreal. Of course, this isn't the first time the league has hinted at expansion to Montreal – see: 2019, 2016. This time, though, it seems to have legs.
(Photo: Michelle Jay/NWHL)