The NWHL’s inaugural season is charging headlong into its first ever championship tournament. Each of the four teams in the league has experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – surprising, perhaps, because just a few short weeks ago, this wasn’t necessarily true.
There was a time in late November when the Boston Pride and the New York Riveters were in a heated battle for second place, dueling to take their spot behind the undefeated Connecticut Whale. In the weeks since then, the momentum that the Riveters gained in their consecutive defeats of the Pride has all but disappeared into a cloud of disorganized and undisciplined play.
From the outside, what looks like a goaltending issue is really anything but. The team has allowed a league-high 58 goals, but also has scored a paltry 33 – fewer than 2.5 goals per game. With 14 games played, every other team in the league has over 3.0 goals per game.
With a minus-25 goal differential, the team’s problems clearly lie at both ends of the ice. A distinct lack of offense combined with sloppy defense make it very difficult for the Riveters to gain any momentum during the course of a game. Worse for the Riveters, though, is their league-leading 197 penalty minutes.
Even with a 0.833 percent success rate on the penalty kill, there is no question that the constant disruption to the lines as well as the fatiguing nature of playing shorthanded contribute to the team’s lack of success in the season.
Key players on the team have had successful seasons, but these stars also suffer from a lack of discipline.
Bray Ketchum, who had three goals in New York’s most recent pair of losses to the Beauts, also had a game misconduct penalty.
Brooke Ammerman, who leads the team in points, had three points in the two contests, but also had 24 penalty minutes – two game misconduct penalties and two minor penalties. Ammerman’s first misconduct penalty lead to Buffalo’s game-tying goal on the subsequent power play.
Aside from the obvious let down, one has to wonder how many points were left in the penalty box, especially in these close matchups.
Untimely penalties and lack of scoring aside, the real root of the Riveters’ suffering this season seems to be the system. At its inception, the team was designed to be a defense-first type of team, but this mindset is not working.
Too often, opponents are able to keep the Riveters hemmed into the zone, and any opportunity the Riveters have to clear the puck is wasted on a line change. In his mid-season report, Today’s Slapshot’s Mike Murphy stated, “There are no greater needs for the Riveters than puck possession and offense. Of course, offensive zone pressure cannot exist without puck possession…”
In the loss to the Beauts on Sunday, both of New York’s goals came on odd-man rushes – the first on what was nearly a three-on-one (thanks to a weak Buffalo backcheck), and the second on a solid two-on-one.
Puck possession aside, the team has players like Ammerman and Russian phenom Luidmila Belyakova – dynamic scorers that can convert on a fast breakout.
#NWHL Bray Ketchum (@bdk27_ of the @NYRiveters scores to tie the game at 2. pic.twitter.com/oXy5boOsvY
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) January 31, 2016
Opening up the strategy may also help with the penalty problems. Several times on Sunday afternoon, the Riveters found themselves with three, or even four, players below the circles in the defensive zone. Their penchant for chasing the puck could easily be adjusted if the team focused on moving it up ice to a player, rather than around the boards and out. Less chasing also equals less hooking, holding, and interference.
If the team adapts from their current dump-and-change philosophy and moves toward a more aggressive breakout strategy, they may be able to gain some ground in the home stretch toward the playoffs. Though the team’s coaching has not shown much ability to evolve as the season has progressed, it is clear that a new approach is an immediate necessity.