The NWHL just wrapped up its fifth regular season and the chase for the Isobel Cup is on. Each of the first four seasons has produced a different champion, and this season either the Connecticut Whale will continue that trend, or we will see the league’s first two-time champion. Or we will see the first back-to-back champion.
The 2020 Isobel Cup playoffs kick off on Friday, March 6 when the Whale travel north to play the Buffalo Beauts. The winner of that game earns a date with the Boston Pride on March 8 which is Semifinal Sunday. The other semifinal that afternoon will be a rematch of last year’s semis as the Metropolitan Riveters head west for a date with the reigning champion Minnesota Whitecaps. The winners of the two semifinals will meet for a chance to hoist the Isobel Cup the following weekend.
Here is one player from each of the five teams that could be an X-Factor in their team’s championship run. None of these players led their team in scoring or is in the running for any major awards, but all of five of them are impact players that their opponents better be wary of during the postseason.
Though she only recorded two wins Whale goaltender Brooke Wolejko was easily the team’s best player over the second half of the season. Only two goaltenders (Amanda Leveille, Sam Walther) in the league saw more shots than Wolejko did, and they both played more games/minutes than she did. The 23-year-old didn’t face the Beauts in any of her 14 appearances and finished the season with 2-8-1 record.
During the year Wolejko was the only goalie to take Boston to a shootout and went toe-to-toe with Leveille and the Whitecaps in a game that was 0-0 entering the third period (Minnesota won 3-0 with an empty-net goal). We’ve seen a hot goaltender carry a team to the Isobel Cup before and there’s no reason why Wolejko can’t do the same if she gets in a groove and continues her stellar play.
The scoring depth of the Beauts took a hit when Brooke Stacey had to step away from the NWHL because she is expecting to have a baby. That void was filled by Erin Gehen who excelled with the extra ice-time and she finished third on the team in scoring with 16 points (7g-9a) in 24 games.
Gehen has played in all situations, finished the season on a three-game point streak (1g-3a), and netted the game-winning goal in their last game before the playoffs. With Buffalo needing to win two games in three days to advance to the Isobel Cup Final, she will definitely be a player to keep an eye on.
The league’s youngest player, Tatiana Shatalova, finished her first season in the NWHL fifth on the Riveters in scoring with 12 points (2g-10a) and after a slow start, she has been creating more offense with her passing and playmaking. She’s also not afraid to put the puck on net and is averaging a shade under three shots on goal a game.
Shatalova can play anywhere in Coach Ivo Mocek’s lineup and is a prime candidate to provide secondary scoring behind Madison Packer and Kate Leary amongst the forward group. In a win and advance game, Shatalova will be a wild card to watch as the Rivs and Whitecaps battle for a spot in the Final.
On a team with talent all over it might be easy to overlook the contributions Lauren Barnes has made this season for the Whitecaps, but she is a player who is just as capable of stepping up in a big moment as anyone on the roster. Barnes finished her second NWHL season with 13 points (2g-11a) in 24 games, easily surpassing her three points (2g-1a) in eight games last season.
She had one goal (against the Riveters) in two playoff games last season, so clearly the big moments don’t phase Barnes and she is one of 13 players who won the 2019 Isobel Cup. This season over the final ten games the 27-year-old forward had a four-game point streak and put up ten points (1g-9a).
There’s no question that Boston is the favorite to win the Isobel Cup with their spectacular offense and airtight goaltending, but an underrated part (if there is one) of their team is the defense corps. Their regular six defenders are the best in the NWHL and Lexi Bender is the longest-tenured member of the group with the Pride. This season she produced her best point total with 13 points (4g-9a) in 24 games.
Half of her goals came on the power-play and she is always a threat to creep down into the zone to try a one-timer or slap pass. The Pride will be well-rested and waiting for whoever wins the Connecticut-Buffalo play-in game and as a leader on the team, Bender will make sure that her team is ready to go as they attempt to reach the Isobel Cup for the first time in three seasons.
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.