NWHL's top two teams ready to face off for the Isobel Cup
For the first time, it's an all-New York battle for the Isobel Cup.
After sitting atop the National Women's Hockey League standings all season, the Metropolitan Riveters and Buffalo Beauts will battle for the league's championship trophy. While both come from the top, their stories are rather different.
The Riveters (14-3) dominated this season from start to finish thanks to a nearly unstoppable offense led by Rebecca Russo and a now-healthy Miye D'Oench. While they boast the league's three leading scorers, their blue line often goes overlooked.
Behind rookie Jenny Ryan and NWHL defender of the year candidate Courtney Burke, the Riveters defenders create offense. And in front of Katie Fitzgerald, they've also shut opponents down, allowing a league-low 30 goals against.
Madison Packer used a hat trick on the final day of the season to lead the league with 10 goals. Alexa Gruschow won MVP thanks to her nine goals and 13 assists.
"With [Erika] Lawler and Russo's speed and Packer's ability, and they get pucks in and grind it out. They work well together for sure," Riveters coach Chad Wiseman said. "Having Miye back in the lineup is a huge help to round out that first line."
The Riveters' only losses came to Buffalo, the only team to play for the Isobel Cup in each of the league's first three seasons. The Beauts (13-4) toppled Boston in overtime last Saturday on a game-tying tally from Corinne Buie, the only player to win two Cups, and Sarah Casorso's first goal in her career for the win.
"I knew the shot was there," Casorso said. "All year I've been hitting posts and crossbars. When I heard that ding, I thought it went into the corner. It wasn't until I looked at [Colleen] Murphy and she was [celebrating]."
Even with a clear two teams at the top, the evenly matched nature of the league has made it a battle all the way through. A different bounce of the puck, and Boston, a team that struggled out of the cellar, could have been in the title game.
"That Boston team, they had us nervous," Beauts coach Ric Seiling said. "They've always played us hard."
Even with a 5-0 win over the Whale on Sunday, Wiseman said the Riveters were tested in their first playoff victory.
"Every goal we put on the board, it was a hard-fought game," Wiseman said. "That's what we expect from Connecticut; they don't quit. They compete, and they made us earn it."
Wiseman's club saw the least dramatic change from last season, whereas Boston lost a number of stars to the Olympics and Connecticut lost several free agents. Even Buffalo lost its share of key players from last season's championship team, but the Beauts exceeded expectations.
As the season went on, they seemed to get stronger. They are currently riding a 10-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 34-17.
Unlike last season's dramatic upset of Boston, a Buffalo victory in 2018 won't be as much of a surprise, especially given their chemistry on offense, a strong back line and Amanda Leveille in net.
Last season's heroics for the Beauts came in the crease, when Brianne McLaughlin made 53 saves to lead the squad to a win over Boston. This season, without McLaughlin, Leveille has stepped up and was named the league's goalie of the year.
"Lev's been No. 1," Seiling said. "We signed her as No. 1 this year, and she's played in every one. She is a consummate champion. She came off a championship college team. I mean, she tells the players, 'You know what, guys? They're going to shoot from here. I'm going to stop it.' "
Buffalo's special teams have also been key, with a 16.7 power-play percentage, including two player-advantage goals to beat Boston.
"At one point, we were at 3-to-1 against in power plays, and finally in that third period, Buie made the power play work for us on that side," Seiling said. "When you get into the playoffs, special teams is such a big part of it. It helped us tonight, and we were on the power play for the game-winner."
Buffalo and Metropolitan do have a history, even beyond the fact that they've split six meetings this season. Last year, Buffalo went into New Jersey and eliminated the Riveters -- with Leveille in net.
Now, as the top team in the league, Metropolitan has its chance at revenge. Tempers have flared each time they've faced off, and with the see-saw history and the balance changing all season, it's sure to play a factor again.
The key to that is keeping a cool head.
"Our discipline and style of hockey," Wiseman said. "Not even just staying out of the box, but structure and staying true to who you are as a team and not getting wrapped up in their style, which is what they want. They're gritty and want to wrap you up, and we have to worry about ourselves."