The NWHL kicked off its fifth season on October 5 and it’s been a wild first month, to say the least over the first 14 games of the season. We’ve seen multiple lead changes, high-scoring affairs, overtime thrillers, and one team has yet to suffer a loss. “That’s the great thing about this season, it’s pretty long and these first games, while we want to win them we know that we want to be playing our best hockey towards the end of the year,” said Minnesota Whitecaps goaltender, the NWHL’s all-time wins leader, and two-time Isobel Cup champion Amanda Leveille. “We’ll take the mistakes we’re making now and we’ll fix them.”
Leaders of the Pack
The Boston Pride have played the most games of any of the five teams and finished the first month a perfect 7-0-0 so it’s no surprise that a lot of their players are atop the league leaders. Their top line ranks 1-2-3 in points – Jillian Dempsey and McKenna Brand have 13 points apiece and Christina Putigna is right behind them with 11. Brand leads all players with seven goals, already surpassing her total of six in 16 games last season as a rookie.
Dempsey is tied with Whitecaps’ blueliner Amanda Boulier for the league lead in assists with 9 and the five-year veteran is certainly going to shatter her career-high for points in a season (15, twice: Seasons 2 & 3). Brand also leads the league in game-winning goals (3) and the Pride’s rookie netminder Lovisa Selander has been phenomenal and boasts a 1.88 GAA to go with a 7-0-0 record and a .949 save percentage.
“The season now is longer, which is awesome. We experienced some momentum swings last season and we know every game matters,” Dempsey said after Boston’s season
The past three seasons the Pride have been eliminated by the Buffalo Beauts in the postseason, with the final two coming on the road because the Beauts had a better record.
The Buffalo Beauts are playing inspired hockey right now, and it’s what has led them to a 3-2-0 record. After spoiling the Connecticut Whale’s home opener on Oct. 5 with a 3-1 victory, the Beauts suffered discouraging road losses of 4-2 and 8-1 in Boston the very next weekend before sweeping Connecticut 5-4 (OT) and 6-4.
Team success has been built by numerous contributors. Beauts rookie defender MJ Pelletier is third in the league (11) in blocked shots and fellow rookie Brooke Stacey has 6 goals in 5 games, which is second in the league; she has yet to play an NWHL game where she hasn’t gotten onto the scoreboard. Though technically they are the Beauts second-line, Stacey, Cassidy MacPherson,
“These next two games on the road are critical,” said Buffalo’s rookie defender Ana Orzechowski. “We’re coming off of two huge wins so the morale is high, but we have to keep up the hard work and positivity, and bring it with us on the bus. I know we’re all itching to get back into the swing of games, so there’s no better test than the upcoming games versus Boston and Connecticut. It’s still considered early in the season, but these wins on the road would be huge for us to take the spot for number-2 in the league, if not push us up to number-1.”
The Beauts currently boast the league’s best PK unit (90%) and their young defensive core has performed admirably through the early stages of the season.
Making a Splash
The Connecticut Whale may be the only team that failed to pick up a win in the month of October (0-4-1), but this Whale team is nothing like the previous two incarnations which were offensively-challenged at times. In Season 3 the Whale had 26 goals in 16 games and last season they had 22 goals in 16 games. This season, in just five games, they already have 13 goals. Ten of their 16 skaters already have at least one goal thus far and 14 players have at least one point.
First-year captain and five-year veteran Shannon Doyle leads Connecticut with 6 points (1g-5a) and leads the league with 16 blocked shots. Their top line of Grace Klienbach, Sarah Hughson and rookie Emma Vlasic has been a constant threat in every game and the trio has accounted for four goals and nine points so far.
“Grace is one of the fastest skaters I’ve ever played with, so she’s fun to play with and she sees the ice well. Sarah has a great sense for the game, she’s able to find us with the puck and she’s in the right spots on the ice,” said Vlasic, who has won the third-most face-offs (69) in the league, said of her linemates. “I think that’s a big thing for our line, knowing where to find each other. We’re able to cycle the puck down low and we all have a good hockey IQ so we’re able to find each other in spots where we should be. We’ve been emphasizing playing with pace, playing with speed, move the puck quickly and play a fast game out there.”
Four of their five games were decided in the third period or overtime and eight of their next nine games are at home. It would be a major shock if they haven’t picked up a handful of wins by the end of the calendar year.
With only three returning players the Metropolitan Riveters have been completely revamped and the results have been mixed through five games (1-4-0). They’ve only played two teams (Boston, Minnesota) and new head coach Ivo Mocek only had a full complement of players for two of those games. For the first time since Season 2, the Rivs needed to find a new goaltender and they may have uncovered a hidden gem in Sam Walther.
Walther has faced the second-most shots (203) in the league and in four of the five games she has made at least 36 saves. Rookie Kendall Cornine has been dynamic and has five goals in her first five pro games, which is tied for third in the league after one month of games. Cornine and her linemates (and former teammates at RIT), Brooke Baker and Mallory Rushton, have been a formidable trio as they find their way at the next level.
“It’s interesting because at RIT we didn’t really play together but now as professionals we are and we’re really connecting out there. It’s awesome and I owe my hot start to my linemates,” said Rushton who has four assists in five games. “They definitely make me feel a lot more comfortable out there,” added Cornine, who has also done an admirable job on face-offs. “We know each other and how each other plays. For me, that has definitely made this an easier transition.”
First-year captain and five-year veteran Madison Packer leads the team in points (3g-3a) and shots on goal (29) and only three of 16 skaters on the Riveters have yet to record a point. Only four of the 16 skaters have yet to take a penalty though, and going forward they need to find a way to stay out of the sin bin.
Riding the Wave
The Whitecaps first month as defending champions was filled with ebbs and flows but yet they still find themselves in second place (3-2-1) after a six-game stretch that had only two home games. Boulier leads the team (and all defenders) with 10 points (1g-9a) and is the only non-Boston player with double-digit points.
Second-year pro Jonna Curtis and rookie Nicole Schammel lead the forward group with nine points apiece and rookie defender Sydney Baldwin also has nine points (4g-5a) after her six-point weekend in Connecticut where the Whitecaps won two times.
“I don’t know who my linemate is going to be tomorrow but that’s totally fine because we’ve all grown up playing Minnesota hockey and that’s kind of our style,” said second-year pro Audra Richards who joined the Whitecaps after a rookie season with the Riveters. “I’ve had the pleasure of playing with a lot of these players before so that helps make the learning curve a little bit smaller. We’re just trying to get better and better every game,” added Baldwin. “Our practices are helping us get better and better every day to figure out different combinations and lineups that will help us be successful.”
With Leveille in net
After every team takes off for the two weekends while the Four Nations Cup is supposed to be going down the NWHL returns as Buffalo visits Boston on Nov. 16 and Connecticut on Nov. 17. Minnesota returns to action with two games in Buffalo the following weekend and the Riveters lone November game comes on Nov. 30 when they play in Boston for
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.