As the four NWHL teams turn the corner of the regular season, with the semi-finals and playoffs just in sight, things are getting good. The teams have built up enough of a history with each other over the course of 18 games apiece that each meeting is reminiscent of a grudge match between teams that have a long and storied history of blood and broken bones, rather than clubs that have only been populated for five months.
There are only two weekends and four games left in the regular season, each with a lot riding on the outcome. This weekend is a weekend of rematches; each team will face the opponent they met the weekend before, only on different ice. The New York Riveters will travel to Buffalo to take on the Buffalo Beauts while the Connecticut Whale will host the Boston Pride at home.
The big storylines going into the matches Sunday are as follows:
Is Steadman having Knight-mares?
Kelley Steadman is second in the league with 12 goals, two behind league-leader and Pride forward Hilary Knight. Knight leads NWHL players in points (28), goals (14) and assists (14). Steadman, who has played three games fewer than Knight, might just have the momentum to overtake Knight in the last two weekends of the regular season and make a bid for either the Leading Scorer or NWHL MVP awards, slated to be given the third weekend in March.
Will Buffalo keep its lead over New York in the standings?
Buffalo is looking to settle the score following last week’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Riveters. In a surprise upset, and only the fourth win of the season for the Riveters, goaltender Nana Fujimoto made 38 saves and forward Kiira Dosdall netted two assists and the game-winning goal. With a victory Buffalo could clinch the third seed in the Isobel Cup Playoffs.
However, if the Beauts suffer some sort of breakdown and drop the next two, New York would have the chance to take over the third spot in the league.
Where New York lands will be of particular interest to Boston and Connecticut, who are battling it out for the top spot. New York is known around the league as the team everyone hates to play; their grind-it-out style is hard on them, but it’s even harder on opponents. A three-game series against the Riveters – even if it’s finished in two – is difficult to come back from and can’t be a thought anyone in Connecticut or Boston relishes.
Can Connecticut take the top spot back from Boston?
The Connecticut Whale hope to break Boston’s five-game winning streak and overtake the Pride’s hold on first place during their second-to-last home game before the postseason. Last Sunday, Jordan Smelker scored two goals and netted an assist, earning her NWHL Player of the Week honors; can the Whale snipe that out from under the Pride as well?
Stealing back the Player of the Week honors might be a tall order for the Whale, who have lost the last four matchups against the Pride. With Shiann Darkangelo having missed a recent handful of games due to injury, the Whale is out their best puck-possessor, as well as one of the top point-producers on the team. If Connecticut does manage to flip the Pride’s boat, the Whale is almost certain to face the New York Riveters in the playoffs.
Will Connecticut’s new coach prove the solution?
The Whale added a new head coach in January after Jake Mastel resigned. Heather Linstad, a former UConn and Northeastern Women’s Hockey coach, was brought on specifically for her two decades behind the bench, NWHL COO and interim Whale GM George Speirs indicated before his exit from the league the following week.
Since taking over and operating as head coach, Linstad has seen her team split its games, winning one against Buffalo and losing one decidedly to the Boston Pride. She has brought a cleaner set of systems to the team, but it thus far has not yet proved enough to pull the win out against Boston. Will the third week make the difference?
Linstad has been head coach for three games, but given she was hired approximately 36 hours before the first game against the Pride; it would be disingenuous to attribute said loss to her coaching.
Leonoff vs Ott: Who will prevail?
Brittany Ott, a former CWHL Boston Blades netminder who started the season favored to be the second goaltender on the Pride by many, has taken the top spot decisively. Ott has elevated her play as the season has gone on, even earning the league’s sole shutout.
Ott has most consistently had an issue capturing pucks high and on the glove side, similar to Whale goaltender Jaime Leonoff’s blocker-side issues that were given the spotlight early in the season when the Riveters threw more than 20 shots at the Whale goaltender’s blocker. Leonoff, on the other hand, is more positionally-oriented as a netminder and less acrobatic than Ott, earning accolades, while at Yale and on Connecticut but has dropped the last two she’s played to Boston, and sat out last weekend due to injury. If Leonoff is back, Sunday’s game will be a true test of her health and skills.