Playoff sweep highlights Riveters’ need for puck-movers

The New York Riveters 6-0 loss in playoff game one and their 7-4 loss in game two to the Boston Pride raised a lot of the same questions that followed the team throughout the regular season.

After being swept in two games in their first-ever playoff series a lot of those same questions now have exclamation points following them. And how could they not when they were outshot 108 to 44?

The Boston Pride are an outstanding hockey team that employs a lethal combination of talent, chemistry, and confidence to put up absolutely dominating possession numbers. It’s impossible to get nearly 60 shots on net in two consecutive games without having a sound system and the personnel necessary to tilt the ice and drive possession.

However, those kind of lopsided results aren’t acheivable without playing against a team that has serious issues moving the puck.

As much of a problem as the Riveters’ inability to generate scoring chances was in their first year, it was nothing compared to the team’s inability to exit their own zone with possession of the puck. On a team that has preached “defense first” since training camp, New York’s skaters didn’t do enough to help their goaltenders, both in the regular season and again in the playoffs.

No team allowed more goals than the Riveters in the NWHL regular season and a big part of that discouraging statistic was their failure to win the possession battle. Through Valentine’s Day the Riveters had a 43.55 even strength Corsi For percentage and when special teams were factored in, a league-worst Corsi For percentage of 43.08.

The power play being toothless and inconsistent during the season exacerbated problems for the Riveters, but it can’t be chalked up to “bad luck” with numbers like those.

Ashley Johnston stickhandles against the glass. NWHL New York Riveters at Connecticut Whale Feb 28 2016. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kaitlin S. Cimini

Puck movement has been the Riveters’ Achilles’ heel since game one, period one of their inaugural season. On a blue line with standout defenders like Kiira Dosdall and captain Ashley Johnston, the Riveters lack true puck movers. A stable full of traditional physical, defensive defenders means plenty of blocked shots and hard work along the boards.

However, the inability to make that all-important first pass in the defensive zone to get the puck headed the other way is a fatal flaw in how the Riveters are currently built.

The burden of blame doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders on the six players that make up New York’s defensive corps. The forwards on the team, especially the centers, haven’t been doing enough to help down low when the ice gets tilted and the Riveters are being crushed in the possession battle.

It’s hard to win without possession, and something that has been abundantly clear through 18 regular season games and both playoff games is that New York just didn’t see enough of the puck to win hockey games.

The criticisms of the coaching decisions in New York have been well documented and voiced by many, but the team’s poor returns on their tactics don’t change a simple and essential fact: the New York Riveters need a puck-moving defender in the worst way next season.

It’s understandable why Alex Carpenter, the first overall selection of the 2015 NWHL Draft, has received so much attention and why the question of whether or not she will sign with New York or decide to go elsewhere is on the minds of so many.

But as it turns out, the ninth overall pick of the draft could be just as important because she will directly address what appears to be the team’s greatest need.

Erin Ambrose is a small, puck-moving defender from Clarkson University that has over 100 assists in just over 125 games with the Golden Knights. Important catch phrases have been and are being used to describe Ambrose’s play by analysts and reporters including “possession driving”, “quarterback”, and “smart with the puck”. What the right-handed, Canadian-born defender can bring to the blue line in New York is something that they just don’t have enough of: puck movement.

Can one player serve as the panacea to all of the Riveters’ shortcomings? Of course not, but there’s no denying the importance of bringing a player like Ambrose to Brooklyn next season.

Boston is blessed with outstanding puck-moving defenders including Gigi Marvin who scored a goal and picked up three assists against the Riveters in the two playoff games. Her impact on the series was absolutely undeniable. Marvin, and the rest of the Pride’s defenders, helped to stoke the fire of the Pride’s possession dominance all series long.

Part of the solution to the Riveters’ greatest need might already be on the way should general manager Dani Rylan convince Ambrose to sign. The current Riveters’ defenders showed an immeasurable amount of courage and resilience fighting an uphill battle all season long by blocking shots and working their tails off while pinned in their own zone.

But as valiant as their efforts have been, someone in a white jersey needs to be able to make the play that gets the puck headed the other way if New York is going to take a step in the right direction next season.

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