For the second consecutive year, the Boston Pride and the Minnesota Whitecaps have made it to the Isobel Cup Final. The two teams won their respective semifinal games on Friday night, setting up for a championship "rematch" of the 2020 Isobel Cup Final that never happened.
Boston defeated the Toronto Six by a score of 6-2 in Friday's earlier semifinal, powered by a well-rounded team effort and six unique goal-scorers. The Whitecaps then strung together a 7-0 victory over the Connecticut Whale, thanks to a huge effort by Amanda Leveille in net and a hat trick from Audra Richards.
Here's a quick recap of the semifinals, and a preview of Saturday's championship game.
Pride Beat Six, 6-2
Two of the NWHL's most offensively talented teams, the Toronto Six and the Boston Pride, faced off in the first semifinal on Friday evening. The first period was filled with high-energy plays, great chances on both ends of the ice and a level of physicality that helped turn things up a notch.
Early on, the Six appeared to have the edge; they started off the game with several strong chances including a narrow miss by Brooke Boquist, but couldn't quite solve Lovisa Selander. The tide quickly turned when the Pride scored twice in a span of 38 seconds to grab control of the game with a 2-0 lead.
"It's just the bounce of a puck and then the next thing you know, you're on the outside of a 2-0 lead, looking in," said Six head coach Digit Murphy after the game.
Tereza Vanišová opened the scoring, picking up a pass from Mary Parker following a strong bout of possession by the Boston squad. Shortly thereafter, captain Jillian Dempsey snagged a pass from Christina Putigna down low, settled a bouncing puck and tucked it in.
To Toronto's credit, they responded quickly. Just over a minute after Dempsey's goal, Breanne Wilson-Bennett pounced on the puck in front of the net and beat Selander to get the Six on the board.
It was the next goal, really, that carried the tide in Boston's favor. Mallory Souliotis scored on a point shot early in the second period, just moments before McKenna Brand capitalized on a rebound in front. All of a sudden, the Pride found themselves up 4-1, a lead they held through the remainder of the middle frame.
Sammy Davis and Parker added goals early in the third period, while Mikyla Grant-Mentis scored for the Six as Boston won 6-2. Friday's game was a great showcase of the parity of the talented Pride squad, as ten different players recorded at least a point and five had two-point nights.
Selander had 23 saves in the victory. Elaine Chuli played most of the game but was eventually relieved by Samantha Ridgewell.
"It was a great win," said Pride head coach Paul Mara. "But the good thing is, we can be better. We want to get better each and every day and I think we can be better than we were tonight and we expect that tomorrow night."
While the Pride were technically designated the away team, playing on their home rink of Warrior Ice Arena certainly seemed to provide a boost, particularly for the returning players on the squad.
"Just playing in Boston, in our home rink, it's definitely an advantage for us," Brand said. "It felt right... good to be out there, and good to play Boston Pride hockey."
Whitecaps Sink Whale, 7-0
Audra Richards recorded a hat trick and Amanda Leveille recorded a 44-save shutout as the Minnesota Whitecaps sank the Connecticut Whale 7-0 in Friday evening's semifinal. The Whale didn't have a bad game by any means, but they were unable to solve Leveille or stifle Minnesotas offensive talents. Audra Richards had a hat trick and Allie Thunstrom scored twice.
The Whale were without head coach Colton Orr, who did not travel to Boston after he was exposed to someone (unaffiliated with the team) who tested positive for COVID-19. Assistant coach Laura Brennan held the reigns on the bench and was joined by the injured Janine Weber.
Haylea Schmid opened the scoring for Minnesota nearly six and a half minutes into the game as she was left open out in front. With the lane wide open, Schmid made it look easy. Connecticut played a strong first ten minutes and had a few great chances, including a puck that slid through the crease. They also had a goal overturned, as Kayla Friesen appeared to tie the game as the puck rolled past the netminder. It was ruled a goal on the ice but was subsequently reviewed and called back.
"It was a very surprising decision, when the ref had what we saw as a very good vantage point of the goal going in," said captain Shannon Doyle of the disallowed goal.
It was from that point that things went from bad to worse for the Whale. Thunstrom showcased her speed and skill with a backhand goal just under the crossbar, scoring her first goal of the season and first of two on the night, and Minnesota held a 2-0 lead going into the intermission.
From there, it was Minnesota's game to lose. Richards scored her first of the night on a rebound after Abbie Ives made the initial save in front. Just over four minutes later, Haley Mack put a fourth goal on the board for the Whitecaps, a handful of seconds before Richards struck again.
Thunstrom and Richards each added goals in the third period en route to the 7-0 victory. All seven goals were scored at even strength, and only one penalty was called during the entire game, an impressive, well-disciplined match between the two teams.
"Unfortunately, the puck did not want to go into the net for us tonight," said Brennan. "We did have a couple of costly mistakes in the D-zone that the Whitecaps were able to capitalize on, but we kept pushing hard all game. We just couldn't bury it."
Much credit has to be afforded to Leveille, who played lights-out and made save after save, including in a flurry during the third period. Thanks in part to her stellar goaltending performance on Friday night, Leveille will now have the chance to play for her third Isobel Cup. She has previously won the championship with the Whitecaps and Beauts.
"It all starts in our defensive end, going out from our goalie to our defense and our forwards coming out hard," said Whitecaps head coach Jack Brodt. "We played a pretty complete game even when we were scrambling around. Lev bailed us out; she just bailed us out."
"People are willing to do the hard things, the uncomfortable things, like block shots," Leveille said, attributing the success to an all-around team effort. "They're just willing to do whatever it takes to win."
To the Championship
The 2020 Isobel Cup Final that never as will finally play out in 2021, as the Boston Pride and Minnesota Whitecaps find themselves right back where they were in March 2020 when COVID-19 first hit. Both teams played strong in their respective semifinal games and clearly showed their worth in making it this far.
With Lovisa Selander at one end of the ice and Amanda Leveille at the other, it will be quite a goaltending battle, but the two teams also carry a lot of offensive skill, too. From Audra Richards to Jillian Dempsey, McKenna Brand to Allie Thunstrom, this matchup will become a question of whether any of these powerful forwards can solve the netminder at the other end.
"Both of us did put up a lot of goals tonight, but I wouldn't expect that out of us tomorrow," Thunstrom said. "It's going to be two really talented teams on both sides of the ice and it's going to be a grind. I think both of us had really great nights offensively and tomorrow, I expect a little more of a defensive battle."
This will be the second matchup of the season between the Pride and Whitecaps. Minnesota came out on top 2-1 back on January 23 in Lake Placid despite being outshot 37-19.
The Pride, who went 3-4-0 in Lake Placid, will be again be slotted as the road team in Saturday's championship against the Whitecaps, who went 3-1-0. As with the semifinals, the final will be played at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, Massachusetts. Puck drop is set for 7:00 PM on NBCSN and Twitch.
(Photo: Michele Jay/NWHL)