Sunday’s game was, as newly minted captain Ashley Johnston said after the game, “an identity game” for the New York Riveters.
They were one of two teams across the NWHL entering Sunday’s play without a win on the season, facing the undefeated Boston Pride who bested the Rivs 7-1 in their only match of the season.
The Riveters had struggled putting the pieces together in their first three games. They struggled adapting to coach Chad Wiseman’s system, struggled on the breakout and put themselves shorthanded all too frequently for a team that was also struggling getting the puck in the net.
That seems like a lot of tics against them, yet they’ve noticeably improved each game and probably deserved a better fate in their last game, a 3-1 loss to the Connecticut Whale on October 25. They outshot the Whale in the first two periods and outplayed them for 45 minutes in a game that highlighted finishing offensively as one of their taller hurdles.
Nonetheless, they entered Sunday knowing they needed a win. Finishing the weekend eight points back of both the Whale and the Pride would have been a bitter pill to swallow and likely sealed their fate, battling the Buffalo Beauts to not wind up at the bottom of the league come year’s end.
How to Make a Statement
Both teams came out playing their own style, trying to dictate how the game would be played.
The high-powered offense of the Pride, led by Hilary Knight sans Brianna Decker, outshot and outpaced the Riveters, gaining clean zone entries and playing a north south style. Once they gained the zone, the Riveters out-muscled the Pride, winning battles and clogging the center of the ice.
Despite being outshot, the Riveters came out of the first on top 2-1, the first time they’d scored two goals in a game, let alone a period. Their offensive play largely fit their M.O. of getting the puck deep and grinding it toward the front of the net. Yet, both goals came off the rush, just 11 seconds apart, the fastest two goals in league history.
Now the Riveters had to play with the lead for the first time all season and in the second, it didn’t suit them well. The Pride controlled play, outshooting the Riveters by a wider margin and ultimately highlighting another great strength of the Rivs: Nana Fujimoto.
Though the stats haven’t played it out flawlessly this season, she’s arguably the best goaltender in the league and made her own statement in the game, ultimately stopping 42 of 44 Pride shots, prompting the team’s captain to say after the game, “She’s the world’s best goaltender. She’s a phenomenal goalie and it’s a real honor playing with her.”
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) November 16, 2015
The Sleeping Giant
The team’s confidence in her was evident as they started to push a little more in the third, something that burned them a couple of times with the Pride gaining a couple of seat clearing shorthanded breakaways, both of which Fujimoto stopped.
Wiseman pushed them back toward their conservative, patient style between periods, Johnston said. “We talked about winning 50/50 battles, which we weren’t doing in the second.”
It started to become clear that there may be a sleeping giant in the Founding Four. The Riveters dictated the tempo, shut down the Pride’s offensive juggernaut and scored an insurance goal — one that it’d turn out they needed when Kacey Bellamy scored very late in the game to make it 3-2.
Importantly for their confidence, they were an offensive force in the third, holding possession and outshooting the Pride 22-10 in what Wiseman called “a gritty effort.”
The final score is NYR-3 and BOS-2. See you next week! pic.twitter.com/IJv5gJnHRk
— NWHL Gifs (@nwhlgifs) November 16, 2015
It was a big win not just because it was the first win in team history, but because it came over what has arguably been the league’s best team and it wasn’t a fluke. The Riveters earned every inch in the game. Something coach Wiseman noted in the post-game press conference, saying that the team was “buying into the system.”
It certainly helped that the team finally got Sydney Kidd in the lineup after months of visa issues. A player capable of playing forward and defense, she helped round out the blue line, taking some of the workload off of Johnston, Elena Orlando and Gabie Figueroa, who have shouldered a lot of the load. Kira Dosdall and Amber Moore have carried the burden as well, with the team playing with just four defenders at times before Sunday’s game.
Having six D helped Kidd as well. “Having six was good. I got the chance to get my legs going,” she said of her first NWHL game.
“It’s awesome. It kind of felt, well, it was a dream come true to be signed by the NWHL and then it felt like it was never going to happen waiting for my visa, so to finally be here is just pretty awesome.”
Challenges remain to the Riveters climbing the standings. For one, they’re the second most penalized team in the league and their penalty kill hasn’t been outstanding with just a 78.9% success rate, tied for the most power play goals allowed. They’re also the only team in the league that has not scored a shorthanded goal.
Their power play also needs to get clicking. They’ve got loads of talent between players like Johnston, Figueroa, Janine Weber, Lyudmila Belyakova and Madison Packer. Yet, they’ve scored just two power play goals on 17 attempts. (In fact that needs to be extended to 5-on-5 play, as Weber and Belyakova have been held off the scoreboard so far.)
That’s endemic of the larger issue for them. They’re defensively sound — despite the appearances given by the 7-1 blowout at the hands of Boston — and have great goaltending, but they need to find a way to score. They need some of their top players to step up and get in the goal column. Top talents like Weber and Belyakova (currently out with an injury) need to get in the score column to help the Riveters prove that the sleeping giant that was glimpsed on Sunday wasn’t a figment of our collective imaginations.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.