Like the famous saying goes – ‘To Be the Champ, You Gotta Beat the Champ’ – and when they eventually take the ice at Warrior Arena the Minnesota Whitecaps (17-5-2) will be doing so as the defending Isobel Cup champions. Sure the Boston Pride (23-1-0) finished the season with the best record, the most points, the most trophies, and a perfect record at home.
But in their short history, Minnesota is a perfect 3-0 in playoff games as an NWHL franchise. With a win in the NWHL title game, the Whitecaps will become the first two-time champion in the league’s five-year history and the first team to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons. Not bad for a team’s first two seasons.
The Whitecaps were the only team to beat the Pride this season, so there is no reason they can’t do it again, especially with the way the team has been rolling since New Year’s Day. Over their last 11 games, Minnesota has lost just once (to Boston) and since 2020 started they have gone 11-2-0.
“I’m just really confident with all of our lines on the Whitecaps. Every time we hit the ice we don’t know who is going to score, but we know one of us will score because we have that determination and we’ve really started to click more,” explained forward Audra Richards.
“We have an amazing line with Allie Thunstrom, Jonna Curtis, and Meaghan Pezon, then we have Nicole Schammel, Meghan Lorence, and Haylea Schmid. And I love my line (with Lauren Barnes and Stephanie Anderson). Once we start clicking I don’t think any defenders can stop us.”
She’s right. Since their loss to Boston (4-2 on Jan. 26) Minnesota has outscored their opponents 25-8 over four games and one playoff game. That playoff game last week was an instant classic as the Whitecaps eliminated the Metropolitan Riveters 1-0 in overtime, with none other than the co-MVP Thunstrom scoring the winning tally.
For the third consecutive season, my THW colleague Nathaniel Oliver and I will preview each of the teams in the Isobel Cup Final – he the Boston Pride and I the Minnesota Whitecaps – with three reasons why each squad will hoist the Cup on when the league reschedules the game. This is also the third straight season in which the NWHL’s two top teams in the standings will play for Lady Isobel.
Here are my three reasons why the Minnesota Whitecaps will win the 2019-20 Isobel Cup Championship.
1. Amanda Leveille
Just how good is Amanda Leveille? In 65 career games as a pro, her record is 42-13-5 with five shutouts, a 2.47 Goals-Against Average (GAA) and a .921 save percentage (SV%). Do you think that’s good? She’s even better in the postseason. Six games, five wins, four straight trips to the Isobel Cup Final, two Isobel Cups, one shutout, a 1.14 GAA, and a .960 SV%. Three goals allowed in her last four playoff games.
“She’s a rock for us and the core of our team starts there. Defense wins games, and so do goalies. I can’t say enough about her,” Richards said of her rival turned teammate.
Her adversary at the other end of the ice, Boston’s netminder Lovisa Selander, is no doubt a worthy opponent. But with everything on the line in a big game how can you not feel comfortable with Leveille in goal? She stopped all 28 of the shots she faced in last weekend’s semis.
“We’re very lucky to have Lev,” added Curtis. “She’s always been our backbone, and it’s great to have a goalie that we can count on when we do have these minor breakdowns.”
Another championship would mean having to create space on the mantle to go alongside the two Isobel Cups and three NCAA titles. “When you’re in a game, from my perspective, I’m just thinking about stopping the next shot and not thinking about anything else,” said Leveille after her most recent triumph. “I trust my teammates, so I don’t worry about anything else during the game.”
2. Thunstrom’s Hot Stick
Four of Allie Thunstrom’s league-leading 24 goals this season came in four games against the Pride. The league’s co-MVP (with Boston’s Jillian Dempsey) has victimized just about every goalie in the league and her speed is unmatched when she gets the puck with open ice in front of her. Even if you somehow stifle her nine times in a row, she might burn you on the tenth attempt.
“Allie is having just a phenomenal season and it’s so fitting that she scored that (winning) goal for our team,” said Leveille after Sunday’s OT thriller at TRIA Rink. Let’s not also forget that she scored the winning goal in Boston’s only loss this season too, in dramatic fashion just like in the semifinals.
She was tied for second in points (36) this season, third in game-winning goals (3), third in shots on goal (142), first in shorthanded goals (2), and third in points-per-game average (1.5). Did we mention she’s really fast? She also won the Fastest Skater at the 2020 NWHL All-Star Game.
“Winning co-MVP and all of that, that’s a team thing. I couldn’t do it without them, especially my linemates Jonna and Pezon. They played unbelievable all year,” said Thunstrom in typical, humble hockey player fashion.
“There was no question we were going to walk away with the win, every player on this team has the ability to score and make plays,” she said after Sunday’s win.
“Boston is an awesome team, a very well-coached team,” said Thunstrom of the last team standing between Minnesota and a second Cup. “But we believe in our team and we’re going to give it everything we have. It will be a really exciting Final.”
3. Championship Pedigree
“We have a ton of confidence no matter what team we are playing against. If we play our hockey and our game for the full-60 minutes, we can compete with anyone,” said Leveille. “We showed it last time we played Boston even though we only got one win we were really tight with them in the third period.”
The Whitecaps may have had a tiny bit of a Cup hangover earlier this season, or maybe the other teams just got more competitive after they steamrolled through their first season as an NWHL team. But once the second half started and they settled on their line combos they have hit another level of excellence.
“They’re a fun team to play against. A lot of talent. It’s fun being out there against them,” Thunstrom said of the Pride team that took three of four games against the Whitecaps.
Boston had 13 players in double-digit points this season, Minnesota had 11 and the Whitecaps were the only team to score more than three goals against the Pride this season. They also have 13 players on their roster that won the Cup last season.
“We competed well with them (in late January) and it just shows how much we’ve grown over this season. At the start (of the season) we lost to them 5-2 and 3-1 or something. We closed that gap and we’re confident with who we have in our lineup,” added the NWHL’s winningest goaltender.
Don’t expect a shootout though. Expect a 2-1 or 1-0 game that could go into sudden-death overtime. The goalies will be the stars of the night and someone is going to be the hero that scores the Cup-winning goal, likely in the third period or overtime.