With the National Women’s Hockey League, having completed their All-Star Break over Valentine’s Weekend, the league’s four teams begin to set their sights on the final stretch of the regular season and the sprint to the Isobel Cup Playoffs, next month.
This past weekend the NWHL’s, Founding Four began a stretch on eleven games over the next month, which will end with the crowning of the 2017 Isobel Cup Champions. Championship Weekend will take place March 17-19, and will consist of a National Collegiate Athletic Association Frozen Four type single elimination tournament.
The New York Riveters currently in second place with a 7-6-3 record, who have the fewest games remaining in their regular season, mounted a historic comeback on Sunday against the Connecticut Whale, at the RJW Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark, New Jersey.
After falling behind early, as Riveters goalie, Katie Fitzgerald, let up the first three shots she faced, leading to Riveters coach Chad Wiseman briefly replacing her with backup goalie, Sarah Bryant, who also did not have much better luck giving up a goal on the two shots she faced.
After two periods the Riveters trailed the Whale, 5-2 before being able to make the comeback with three goals in the third and the eventual winner by defenseman, Courtney Bourke, in overtime. Riveters forward, Janine Weber had two goals and two assists as Amanda Kessel had four assists for New York, including the primary assist on the game winning goal.
Whale new acquisition, Zoe Hickel and forward Kelli Stack put up a pair for Connecticut.
The Riveters final two games will be March 4 in Boston and then March 12 in Newark.
Riveters forward, Miye D’Oench said, “I am just looking forward to play for a championship. I might add that I have never in my whole career won the last game of the season and I am feeling like it is past time for that to happen.”
Kessel added, “For us, we talked about it as a team, we are in playoff mode now. Because the playoffs are so short and we are fighting for that second seed, and home-ice advantage in the semi-final game is huge. For us, I think it is an advantage to only have to beat Boston one time.”
Riveters captain, Ashley Johnston said, “Ultimately our job here and in our job in the locker room is to win it all. So, this [adjustment to the schedule] changes the strategy a little bit, but it does not change the game plan of playing the best hockey and playing Riveters hockey.”
The Whale, after coming off their heartbreaking defeat on Sunday in Newark, are in fourth place with a record of 4-10-1. Currently on a seven-game winless streak, they hope they can change their luck in their last three games.
They will host the unbeaten Boston Pride at the Northford Ice Pavilion on February 24 and two against the Buffalo Beauts, in Western New York on February 26 then back home on March 12.
Hickel said, “The second half of the season already goes by quick; now with the schedule shortened; yeah, these games, to put ourselves in a good position for the Isobel Cup Playoffs, we have to make the most out of these last few games. As you get closer to the end of the season, you always get more anxious, more excited to be there [on the ice].”
Whale forward, Meghan Huertas added, “I am happy to be here, being part of the NWHL and the Connecticut Whale has been a dream come true thus far. I love playoff hockey, especially with single elimination you are in that ‘do or die’ mentality and it makes the games that much more exciting. I am looking forward to chasing the Cup with my teammates and coaching staff and hope to bring home the Isobel Cup.”
The Beauts, who were the runner-up to the Pride last season in the inaugural Isobel Cup Finals, which were held at the Riveters current home rink, RJW Barnabas Health Hockey House, hold down third place this season, with a 5-8-1 record. Their final three matchups include a visit to Boston and Northford, Connecticut, on March 5 and 12 respectively. They will close out their home schedule on February 26 as they host the Whale.
Goaltender, Brianne McLaughlin, who announced her retirement following the season said, “I am going to try and enjoy this last month and hopefully we can kick it into gear and the Beauts can make another run at the Isobel Cup, we fell a little bit short last year.”
Forward, Shiann Darkangelo added, “I think it will be exciting. It is basically one month that we all have left and I think it will be good. Then it is just like any team can win it because it will only be one game and not a series. I think it is a good thing and I am excited.”
She continued, “Whatever team shows up that night will win, whereas in a series usually, the better team wins. I think we have a good core group in Buffalo and if we come together here at the end then we have a chance.”
The Pride have already clinched the number one seed with their 13-0-0 record and have not lost since January 3, 2016 when the Beauts defeated them in overtime.
They will try to continue to keep rolling through their last four games as they travel to Connecticut to take on the Whale on February 24, before returning home to Warrior Ice Arena for their final two home games against the Riveters on March 4 and Beauts on March 5. The Pride will then close out their regular season in Newark, on March 12.
Forward Meghan Duggan said, “In Boston, our focus is the Isobel Cup right now; we have obviously had an extremely successful season and I think our best hockey right now as of our last two games. We are excited, we are going to keep doing what we need to do to win games and that has been our focus all season.”
She continued, “Definitely the shift in the playoff schedule changes things a little bit from a logistical standpoint, but we take it one game at a time as we have been doing all season and hope that we come out on top each game.”
Pride defenseman, Blake Bolden added, “We lost Zoe [Hickel], which is a bummer; but we just have to figure out our lines. Everybody wants to take us down so that just makes every game more fun.”
Gigi Marvin, defenseman, went on to add, “The next few weeks are going to be awesome. This is the best time of year to play. Everyone loves playoff hockey. Like they say in the NHL, it is a whole new season. I am really excited, we have gone undefeated so far but we really like what we see going forward, going hard every shift.”
With the finish line in sight one of the Founding Four teams will hope that they can go on a roll and ride the hot goalie as they fight to get that chance to hoist the Isobel Cup on March 19.
The single elimination tournament will begin on Friday March 17 with the Pride as the number one seed, hosting the number four seed. The second and third place teams will square off on Saturday March 18, with the number two seed having home ice advantage.
The Isobel Cup Final will be played on Sunday March 19, in the home arena of the higher seed. Tickets for all the action can be found at www.nwhl.zone/tickets.