December was a big month in the NWHL for a variety of reasons, we had announcements, appearances, epic performances, an outdoor game, and a few games that needed extra time to be settled. In total there were 13 games between the five teams in addition to Boston being named the host of the 2020 All-Star Game (Feb. 8-9), and a handful of NWHL personnel ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 23.
“I think we’re a very talented team. We’ve talked about it numerous times, but when we play our brand of hockey and when we compete, we don’t think there’s a team that can keep up with us,” said first-year Pride forward and three-year NWHL veteran Emily Fluke. “Every team is going to get better in every game and every practice and we just have to keep doing the same thing.”
The Boston Pride continued their winning ways in December to the tune of a 5-0-0 record, but for the first time this season, they were pushed to overtime (Buffalo) and then a shootout (Connecticut). As expected when your team is 15-0-0, there are a lot of Pride players amongst the league leaders.
Heading into 2020 captain Jillian Dempsey leads the NWHL in points (26) and is tied for the league-lead in assists with teammate Christina Putigna (15), while their linemate McKenna Brand is second in points (25) and goals (14). Dempsey had a team-high eight points during the month, followed closely by Fluke (7), Putigna (7), and Brand (7).
“There’s just a mentality or an attitude where everybody is excited to be here, everybody’s bought into the culture that we’ve created,” said Dempsey replied when asked about her team’s depth. “There’s a sense of everyone is just going out there and doing their job, and knowing that no matter who we have out there they are going to be doing their job and working their hardest. That is an awesome feeling to have that kind of depth, to have that kind of trust in everybody.”
Defender Jenna Rheault picked up her first career NWHL goal, in overtime on Dec. 21; not a bad early Christmas present, and a week later Tori Sullivan potted the only and winning goal in a shootout against the Whale. Victoria Hanson went 3-0-0 and Lovisa Selander was 2-0-0 in goal for the Pride.
The Pride has six-games on the schedule next month, including two-games sets in Buffalo (Jan. 4-5) and Minnesota (Jan. 25-26) and one home game against the Riveters (Jan. 20), and Whale (Jan. 12).
The Buffalo Beauts failed to pick up a December win (0-3-1), therefore making the middle of the standings tighter and tighter with each passing weekend. But there were definitely bright spots, and as we all know you can never count out a team from Buffalo.
Taylor Accursi was on fire last month with seven points (6g-1a), highlighted by her epic, 4-goal, third-period performance during the Buffalo Believes Outdoor Classic on Dec. 28. Iveta Klimasova (1g-4a), captain Corinne Buie (1g-3a), and defender Sara Bustad (1g-2a) rounded out the Beauts’ leading scorers in December.
“An awesome experience,” Accursi said after the outdoor game which was played before a sellout crowd of more than 1,200 fans at Riverworks. “The fans of the Beauts and NWHL really took a stand tonight. I hope we do a game like this one every season.”
Buffalo has only four games next month and then won’t be in action again until after the All-Star Break. They will host the Pride (Jan. 4-5) before heading to Minnesota for a two-game set (Jan. 11-12). The next game for the Beauts after that will be in mid-February.
The Whale remained winless this season (0-12-2) but picked up a point in December (0-5-1). They aren’t getting blown out though, in fact, they took Boston deeper into a game than anyone else and four of their losses were by a lone goal.
Emma Vlasic (3g), Kayla Meneghin (3a), and Hanna Beattie (2g-1a) led the way in the scoring department, while goaltender Brooke Wolejko established herself as a bonafide netminder in the league. Wolejko made four starts which included a 56-save shootout loss to Boston and her save percentage was over .900 in three of those starts.
“Unreal! It’s hard to describe it any other way,” replied captain Shannon Doyle when asked to describe how Wolejko played in the shootout loss. “She and Sonjia (Shelly) have been playing great and it really is a blessing to have two goalies behind you that you are confident in.”
The Whale have only one home game left this season, Feb. 22 vs. Boston at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, and will be on the road six times in January. They play at Metropolitan three times (Jan. 11, Jan. 25-26) at Minnesota twice (Jan. 18-19) and at Boston once (Jan. 12).
Rivs Are Rolling
The Metropolitan Riveters got themselves on a roll after a slow start earlier this season and finished December at 5-2-0, putting themselves one point out of third place. Sam Walther was phenomenal in net and led all goalies with five wins, despite facing the most shots in the league.
Rivs captain Madison Packer has at least one point in every game this season (13 games) and is coming off an eight-point weekend (4g-4a) in Buffalo that moved her into third place in the NWHL scoring race with a career-high 21 points (10g-11a). Kate Leary is on a 12-game point streak and had 13 points (5g-8a) last month, and Kendall Cornine also chipped in ten points (5g-5a).
“This group is maturing more and more every weekend and it’s a fun thing to be a part of right now. This group has no quit, and we are just getting started,” declared Packer after completing the sweep in Buffalo. With 13 goals over the past two games, it’s safe to say that the Rivs’ offense is running on all cylinders right now.
Of the six games the Riveters will play in January, five will be at home where they have only played twice this season. They host the Whitecaps (Jan. 4-5) and Whale (Jan. 11, Jan. 25-26) and will make their final trip to Boston on Jan. 20.
Whitecaps Gaining Momentum
The Minnesota Whitecaps picked up seven of a possible eight points (3-0-1) which included a sweep in Connecticut and a second split with the Riveters in their home rink. Amanda Leveille continued her stellar play in net and picked up the league’s lone shutout, a 20-save win on Dec. 21 against the Whale. She is the only netminder to play every second of her team’s games this season.
The Whitecaps scored 12 goals over the four games and were led by the developing dynamic duo of Allie Thunstrom and Audra Richards, who combined for 13 points. Thunstrom scored all three goals in Leveille’s shutout win, finishing the month with seven points (5g-2a), and Richards had six points (3g-3a). Their linemate Meaghan Pezon chipped in three assists as well.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a first half (of the season) and we’ve been on the road for most of it, but I’m super proud of everyone on this team,” said Thunstrom who was named Player of the Week after her four-goal performance in the two-game sweep of Connecticut. “I’m excited for the second half to start and get to play some games in front of our amazing fans at TRIA Rink.”
She’ll have to wait a bit longer because the Whitecaps open 2020 with two road games against the Riveters (Jan. 4-5). But then they host the other three teams on consecutive weekends to close out the month, welcoming Buffalo (Jan. 11-12), Connecticut (Jan. 18-19), and Boston (Jan. 25-26) for their first visits of the season.
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.