Many considered Riveters GM Chad Wiseman’s signing of Jaimie Leonoff to a league minimum contract on May 1 to be the steal of the NWHL offseason. There was a newfound confidence in the Riveters’ goaltending. But that confidence proved to be fleeting. And it all but evaporated when the news broke about Leonoff’s offseason injury.
With Leonoff out for the season, Sojung Shin, who signed with the Riveters for $13,500, entered training camp as the projected starting goaltender. Shin was a standout in CIS hockey with St. Francis Xavier. She also has a sterling international record playing for South Korea’s Women’s National Team. On paper, the starting job was Shin’s to lose.
In Shin’s NWHL regular season debut she allowed five goals on 26 shots against the Boston Pride. Wiseman, hoping to spark his team, put St. Cloud State’s Katie Fitzgerald in net after the second intermission. The 5’10” Fitzgerald stopped seven of the eight shots she saw. The only puck that got past her came on a shorthanded breakaway from Boston’s Emily Field.
Somewhat surprisingly, Fitzgerald got the nod over Shin for the Riveters’ home opener against the Connecticut Whale.
“I thought she came in the third period against Boston in Buffalo and played a really solid period of hockey,” Wiseman shared after Sunday’s loss. “She worked hard all week, she has a big body, and I thought she earned that start today.”
In her first NWHL start Fitzgerald allowed four goals on 38 shots in a losing effort. She came up with several big saves but also looked unconvincing at times. Fitzgerald appeared to have some problems with puck tracking and rebound control. The latter proved costly and resulted in two goals for Connecticut.
The Riveters, despite all of their offseason additions, allowed ten goals in their first two games. Eerily enough, last season the Riveters allowed 11 goals in their first two games, which were also losses to Boston and Connecticut. But it’s still a little early to start panicking.
The Riveters have a lot riding on the knowledge of new goaltending coach Rebecca Ruegsegger-Baker. Both Shin and Fitzgerald struggled with rebound control and, at times, their positioning. Ruegsegger-Baker has history working with both goaltenders. She will certainly be addressing the loose pucks that have proven so costly to New York. If anyone knows how to get the most out of the duo, it’s her.
It’s important to remember that Shin, who is 26 years old, is an experienced goaltender. She doesn’t have Fitzgerald’s size, but she has great quickness and excels at taking away the bottom half of the net.
Shin isn’t the first goaltender to get pulled in her first professional game and she won’t be the last. Her grasp on the starting role is not as firm as it was in the preseason, but we obviously haven’t seen the best of her in the NWHL.
Despite an 0.861 team save percentage it’s hard to hang the two losses on the goaltenders. Skaters frequently missed assignments in the defensive zone in both games. The Riveters left attacking forwards unchecked around the crease far too often. The Riveters’ big price tag defense needs to do better by their goaltenders. And the head coach knows it.
“We’re going to have to work on a few things this week in practice: defensive zone responsibilities and decision-making in the offensive zone,” Wiseman shared after the home opener.
The Riveters’ defense has already provided two goals this season, but they have also surrendered far too many high-quality scoring chances. It’s hard to fault Shin and Fitzgerald for breakaway goals and attacking forwards left undefended on the doorstep waiting to bang home cross-crease passes. It’s also hard to fault them for battling rebounds when the skaters in front of them can’t generate a clean zone exit.
“You’re going to have games when things aren’t clicking and I think that [happened] today in our defensive zone,” Kaleigh Fratkin admitted after the loss to her former team. “It’s not a talent thing. It’s a lack of effort, a lack of moving our feet. But you saw a glimpse when we were moving our feet we were a hundred times faster than Connecticut.”
It’s hard to say what the Riveters have with the goaltending duo of Shin and Fitzgerald. You can easily make the argument that they are the two biggest unknowns on the roster. If history tells us anything Wiseman will go with whichever goaltender he believes to be most on her game next weekend.
Unfortunately for the Riveters their next opponent is the Boston Pride.