In what was an instant classic the Minnesota Whitecaps finished an inaugural season for the ages when they defeated the Buffalo Beauts 2-1 just 49 seconds into overtime of the NWHL’s Isobel Cup Final. The Whitecaps become the fourth different franchise in four seasons to capture the NWHL championship and by virtue of having the league’s best record they were able to do it in front of a sold out, standing room only crowd at home in TRIA Rink.
After a clean face-off win by Katie McGovern that went straight back to gold medalist Lee Stecklein, the Whitecaps defender fired a shot on net that nicked the stick of Buffalo’s Dani Cameranesi enough to elude goaltender Nicole Hensley and find the back of the net. Stecklein (1g-1a, 4 blocked shots) was named Playoff MVP. Hensley was the surprise starter when the Beauts announced early Sunday afternoon that Shannon Szabados was unavailable with a lower-body injury. She was easily Buffalo’s MVP in the title game and walks away empty-handed following a stellar 29-save performance.
Lee Stecklein with the goal through the five hole to win the game, 2-1. pic.twitter.com/C0KY8bMIZz
— The Ice Garden (@TheIceGarden) March 17, 2019
In the other crease, Amanda Leveille became the league’s first two-time Cup-winning goalie and the third player in league history (Corinne Buie, Harrison Browne) to win multiple Cups by calmly stopping 22 of the 23 shots she faced in the title game. It was a bit of redemption for Leveille who was in a similar spot as Hensley last season – losing a one-goal game in the Isobel Cup Final.
It took a while for the teams to get a feel for one another, their last meeting was Dec. 30, but once they did both the Beauts and Whitecaps began trading chances and both goalies were clearly up to the task. Two minutes after Buffalo killed off the game’s first power play they scored the game’s first goal on a shot from the point by Emily Pfalzer that went through a maze of bodies to find the back of the net at 17:01. On the scoring play, it was rookie forward Annika Zalewski who carried the puck around the back of the net and threaded a pass that Pfalzer could step into and snap the puck towards the net.
WOW WHAT A GOAL! 😱
— The Ice Garden (@TheIceGarden) March 17, 2019
Instead of being stunned or shellshocked the Whitecaps quickly responded and 1:22 later they tied the game when Amy Menke wired a shot top shelf, short side over Hensley’s shoulder. Up until that point, the Beauts defenders were able to stymie and stifle Minnesota’s speedsters but Menke was able to sneak around Pfalzer with her speed on the wing and when she cut towards the net she was all alone.
Defense Wins Championships
In the second and third periods, the teams would each come up empty on three power plays. Buffalo was blocking shots all game long, clogging up shooting lanes and not allowing stars like Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hannah Brandt ample space to create havoc. At the other end Buffalo was never quite able to find rebounds around Leveille’s crease and one of the few times they got a solid chance, Maddie Elia, the league’s leading goal scorer, rang one off the crossbar.
Early in the third-period Beauts blueliner Blake Bolden rang one a shot off the post and minutes later Whitecaps forward Jonna Curtis cleared a loose puck out of the crease before a Buffalo player was able to swoop in and push the puck over the goal line. The Beauts primarily used four defenders throughout the game with Bolden, Pfalzer, Lisa Chesson, and Savannah Harmon all logging heavy minutes against their speedy opponents. Did it wear them down? Maybe, but it’s hard to fault anyone on the Beauts after how valiantly they played.
Caps Win the Cup
The Whitecaps have been around a long time, long enough that they were once in the CWHL and now they are the first team to ever win championships in that league as well as the NWHL. Now they have set the bar enormously high for future expansion teams in the NWHL – starting their season on a five-game winning streak and ending it on a seven-game winning streak.
McGovern scored the first goal of the season for Minnesota, scored their first game-winning goal in the playoffs on Friday night, and has now assisted on the Cup-winning goal which will be on highlight reels until the end of time. After a slow start to the season (two points in nine games), Menke finished it on fire. She had ten points (3g-7a) over their last eight games including a goal and an assist in the playoffs.
3 Stars of the Game:
1) Lee Stecklein (Minnesota): Cup-winning goal, assist
2) Amanda Leveille (Minnesota): 22 saves, win
3) Nicole Hensley (Buffalo): 29 saves, overtime loss
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.