Amanda Kessel assisted on five of the six Metropolitan Riveters goals and the defending NWHL champions started 2019 with a bang and went home with a 6-3 win over the Connecticut Whale in Stamford on Sunday. The win was just the third for the Riveters (3-8-0), and the six-goal explosion was by far their largest output in a single game this season. “It feels really good to start off the new year like this,” the gold medalist said afterward. “The nice thing about this league is every team makes the playoffs right now. Maybe for us, it’s not how we started the season, but how we finish it.”
Among the other stars for the Rivs in the win were rookie Audra Richards who had two goals to tie for the league lead (8), a four-point game for Madison Packer (1g-3a), and the power play which had been struggling all season netted two goals. “We’re a phenomenal hockey team and we should rarely lose games in this league,” said Packer. “There’s been a lot of criticism towards the coaching staff and things like that, and that is what it is. But we as players have a responsibility to show up and play and we weren’t doing our jobs because we weren’t…it’s tough to go to the rink when you’re frustrated and you don’t have that passion for what you’re doing.”
Also, Maria Sorokina made her league and team debut in goal and picked up her first NWHL win against the team that traded her to the Riveters four days ago. The Whale were playing catch-up all game long but were able to score a goal in each period – via Nina Rodgers, Jamie Goldsmith, and Emily Fluke – (Kateřina Mrázová had a pair of assists) as they dropped the final of four regular-season matchups against their closest rivals.
New Year, New Rivs
It took just over five minutes for the Riveters to take a lead they’d never relinquish. Richards potted the first of her two power-play goals at 5:34 and less than three minutes later Packer made it 2-0 when she converted on a backhand shot at the end of a breakaway. “Huge,” Packer simply replied when asked how important it was to finally get their power play going. The Rivs doubled their season total of two in one game. “We were making plays today that aren’t that much different from the plays we’ve been making for the last eight weeks. They just weren’t clicking. Today we had a little more patience, we didn’t throw our heads back when we missed on a play, and it was huge.”
— Women's Sports Highlights (@WSportHilites) January 6, 2019
Rodgers was able to solve Sorokina when she sniped a shot past her ex-teammate at 14:08, but 61 seconds later Alexa Gruschow restored the Rivs two-goal advantage. Kessel assisted on all three first period tallies for the Riveters and was a constant threat every shift she took in her team’s first game in over a month. When asked if she likes to pass more than shooting the puck she smiled and said, “That’s true, but don’t tell anyone! Honestly, I’ve been trying to have more of a shoot-first mentality. I think today I was shooting a little bit more and then those passing lanes start to open up.”
The Riveters looked like a new team, like last year’s team really, and never wavered each time the Whale tried to claw their way back into the game. Goldsmith scored her first goal of the season for Connecticut off a goalmouth scramble 4:20 into period two, but 6:08 later Rebecca Russo moved the score to 4-2 when she scored on a rebound of a point shot. Five minutes later it was Richards scoring for the Riveters again, and again it came via the power play, and again Packer and Kessel assisted on her goal – just like in the first period. “Most of the time in games the difference is special teams and to not have that going early in the season killed us,” Kessel said. “That’s on us. This week we spent some more time working on it, talking as a group, and to finally have a little reward at the end felt good.”
As @MattFPxP pointed out, the Rivs 4th goal vs CTW on Nov. 25 came in the shootout. So, today's game is the 1st time this season the Rivs' offense has scored more than 3 goals in regulation. Coming in to today's game, the Rivs averaged 1.6 GF/GP.
— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) January 6, 2019
The loss was the third in a row for Connecticut and left them tied with the Riveters for fourth place in points. “I think the big thing for us is our penalty kill was a little off,” said Whale defender Colleen Murphy. “It’s not really characteristic of us to give up two power play goals. The big thing for us is that we’d respond and make it a one-goal game, but we couldn’t keep that momentum. When you score three (goals) you should win.”
The Riveters began the third period with a 5-2 lead and Fluke scored on the power play 60 seconds in to give the Whale a chance at making a comeback. That hope was extinguished when Miye D’Oench scored her first goal of the season at the tail end of a beautiful passing play anchored by Kessel and Packer. The Riveters looked in control all game and it was largely because for probably the first time all season the entire team looked like they were on the same page.
“The lineup changed a bit, we prepared differently,” said Packer of what led to her team’s biggest offensive output of the season. “At the end of the break, a lot of people were frustrated. We’re professionals but most of us do this because it’s fun. It started to get frustrating and not fun for a while. That seems simple, but I think that’s what it is. We came out and wanted to have fun. (Head Coach) Randy (Velischek) was great in the locker room and stayed positive from start to finish, and our team remembered why we do this; I think that’s the biggest thing,” added the fourth year Riveters forward.
Kessel said afterward she didn’t do much different that day than any other day, just that the bounces finally went her and her team’s way. “Maybe before people weren’t finishing, maybe I was off with my passes, but today it seemed to click and it was a great team effort all the way around. We’re starting to establish our team identity,” she said. “That’s huge for us. I don’t know if we were necessarily working as hard as we could at the beginning of the year. I think we’re figuring out that every team in this league is really good and some are more talented than others.”
“But you can never be outworked. So to have that going up to Buffalo (next weekend) knowing that we’re going to be playing a great team, I feel good with where we’re at.” Kessel now leads the league in assists (12), power play assists (4), and is third in points (13).
3 Stars of the Game:
1) Amanda Kessel (Rivs): 5 assists (12)
2) Madison Packer (Rivs): goal (5), 3 assists (4)
3) Audra Richards (Rivs): 2 pp goals (8)
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.