PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
Goaltender Andrea Brändli has faced more shots than minutes she's been on ice for Team Switzerland so far in the 2021 Women’s World Championships. In 101:13 of game play against the United States and Canada, she’s made 96 saves on 104 shots and is carrying a .923 save percentage.
Her stellar performance in the opening round of the tournament has earned Brändli a ton of attention and respect from those who may be noticing her for the first time.
But the 24-year-old Ohio State senior has been on Switzerland's senior roster since she aged out of U-18's, making her first appearance on a World Championships roster in 2016. She's been learning and biding her time behind Florence Schelling and Janine Alder as the team's third goaltender.
She got her first chance to start at the 2019 worlds, splitting time with Alder. She put up two 40+ saves performances against Canada and Russia, but didn’t draw the same attention as she has in Calgary.
Despite two lopsided scores, Brändli has caught fans' attention as she shows off her speed and agility, making spectacular save after spectacular save while under attack from the most talented and prolific scorers in women’s hockey.
It's been a breakout performance at the senior international level for the Ohio State netminder, but it should by no means be a surprise. Brändli has been showing her aptitude for strong showings in big games for three years in Columbus. By midway through her junior season, she was already the program's all-time winningest goalie.
In each of her first three years at OSU, her season-high in saves came in high stakes games. Ohio State coach Nadine Muzzerall said Brändli plays her best when she's angry or there's something on the line.
"She's got a very elite mindset," said Muzzerall. "She doesn't fold under the pressure. She rises to the pressure. She can perform because she's mentally relaxed. She wants that net to be hers. Always."
In Muzzerall's opinion, Brändli’s best game of Ohio State’s last season came in a 2-1 win over Minnesota on February 12. Muzzerall had, she notes, started Brändli’s goalie partner Amanda Thiele the game before. Brändli responded by helping her team earn a big win.
The Buckeyes also won their first game in more than five years in Duluth in 2021. Brändli notched her season high of 32 saves that game.
The previous season, Ohio State won their first-ever WCHA tournament with back-to-back overtime wins. Brändli made 79 saves on the weekend, including 41 in the championship game against eventual national champions Wisconsin. She also tallied her first career assist on Emma Maltais' championship-winning goal.
And in her rookie year at OSU, Brändli and her teammates stonewalled Wisconsin twice in Madison during the final weekend of the regular season to keep the Badgers from winning the WCHA title. In the first game, Brändli had a career-high 55 saves, toppling her previous high of 42. In the shootout, she stopped Annie Pankowski, Sophie Shirley, and Abby Roque. In game two, she made 40 more saves and stopped Pankowski and Emily Clark in the shootout.
While it could be overwhelming or exhausting to see such a high number of shots, Muzzerall said Brändli is composed under pressure.
"It's controlled chaos. The more shots she sees, the more she performs because of how alert and how composed she is," said Muzzerall.
After the US game, Brändli admitted that after the excitement of the first few minutes of finally being back on the ice with the national team, she just buckled down and performed.
"After two minutes, my brain just stopped working and I just functioned," she said.
It's that kind of conditioning and muscle memory that Muzzerall says carries Brändli through games where she's getting peppered with shots and has little time to catch her breath.
Brändli's years of experience with the Swiss National Team at international competitions have given her "a little swag," said Muzzerall. It's not cockiness, but just a self-assuredness in knowing she's been on big stages and performed well before.
"She possesses that mindset of 'I've been to Worlds.' She has this swag of yeah, I got this, which you want in a goalie. She's composed under pressure because she’s been under the gun before," said Muzzerall.
Though she came to Columbus already a very mature, very good goaltender, Brändli has shown a commitment to improving and Muzzerall said we're seeing that on the ice in Calgary this week.
"In terms of the execution and skill set, she's very agile and very quick. You can see her lateral movement and her quickness getting down and up. She tracks the puck very, very well. She has improved a bunch on her rebound control. She’s come a long way with a lot of the little details," Muzerall said.
While it has been an overall rough tournament for Switzerland, with no wins and rising star Alina Müller sidelined due to injury, Brändli has been a bright spot, continuing a tradition of stellar Swiss goaltending. Switzerland won a bronze at the 2014 Olympics on the back of similar stellar netminding from Schelling. Brändli has shown that she is the foundation out from which her team can build. There's a young talent on the Swiss roster and knowing they have Brändli behind them means they can be less defensive-minded and more proactive about moving the puck up ice.
A five-year veteran at just 24 years old, Brändli should be the backbone of this squad for at least a few Olympic cycles. Her experience and youth are proving to be an excellent combination and she's shown the world this week what Muzzerall and college hockey fans have known for a few years – she's calm under pressure and performs her best when the stakes are the highest.