NWHL Playoff Preview: The Pride are favorites, but don't crown them Isobel Cup champions yet

Boston has lost once all season and enter the post-season riding a two-game shutout streak. But the Pride aren't infallible and the NWHL's one-game, do-or-die format is ripe for upsets.
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TeMo Photo at temophoto.com

TeMo Photo at temophoto.com

Friday night in Buffalo, the NWHL post-season will begin with a win-and-you’re-in affair between the Beauts and visiting Connecticut Whale. But the celebrations for whichever team advances to the semifinal of the Isobel Cup playoffs won’t last long. In the wake of the victory, one team or the other will be packing their bags and bound for Boston, where a date with the league-leading Pride awaits.

On the other side of the bracket, the matchup is set and has been for some time. While Boston prepares for the winner of the play-in game, the second-place Minnesota Whitecaps and third-seeded Metropolitan Riveters have known for a few weeks now that they were destined to clash in one of Sunday’s semifinals. And it's a game that could be far closer than a cursory glance might suggest.

Once the dust settles Sunday, the Isobel Cup final will be set. And once the championship game comes and goes, who will be left standing atop the NWHL? Here’s a look at who to watch, how each team will either win or lose this post-season and predictions for the entire Isobel Cup playoffs:

CONNECTICUT WHALE (5)
2–20–2 — 6 pts.

Player To Watch: Speaking about the Whale’s chances of pulling off a post-season upset as the lowest seed, captain Shannon Doyle praised Connecticut’s goaltending. As she put it, “We’re blessed with the three best goalies in the league.” And it’s Brooke Wolejko who will have to back up that claim Friday evening in Buffalo if the Whale want to upset the fourth-seeded Beauts and punch a ticket to Sunday’s clash with the Boston Pride. Despite allowing six goals against in last Saturday’s clash with the Riveters, the Whale’s No. 1 netminder has been on fire in recent weeks. Since Jan. 19, she has turned in a .924 save percentage and made more than 45 saves (!) in each of her past three outings. Dialled in.

How They Win: Much of Connecticut’s success is going to be predicated on goaltending, but timely scoring is also going to be awfully important. While the Whale posted the lowest goal total in the NWHL by a country mile – their 39 goals were 31 fewer than the next-lowest scoring club – Connecticut has a few players who can put the puck in the net. Emma Vlasic, who led the team with nine goals, has been in a dry spell, but if she catches fire again and the goaltending can hold, the Whale could deliver a trio of upset specials.

How They Lose: Connecticut plays with a never-say-die approach and can frustrate the opposition, but the Whale also have a tendency to surrender far too many opportunities. If the goaltending is excellent, it’s not far-fetched to believe Connecticut can win its way into the Sunday outing against the top-seeded Pride, but Boston seems too tall a mountain to climb with the offensive depth they possess.

BUFFALO BEAUTS (4)
8–15–1 — 17 pts.

Player To Watch: Much of the focus is going to be on Taylor Accursi, the Beauts’ leading goal scorer who has the ability to be a game-changer if she catches fire, but the biggest difference-maker could be Léa-Kristine Demers. Inked heading into the final weekend of the campaign, the former Merrimack College keeper turned in a 72-save performance on 77 shots in a two-game set against the Riveters and it appears the Beauts are going to turn to her again in the play-in game. It’s only a two-game sample, but Demers’ .935 SP is leaps and bounds ahead of the .865 SP Mariah Fujimagari turned in her role as Buffalo’s starter for much of the season.

How They Win: It’s all about offense for the Beauts, who finished the campaign with 71 goals, the third-highest total in the league. Accursi is a big part of the attack, but Buffalo is lethal all over. Altogether, nine Beauts posted double-digit point totals this season, and rounding out the top-five behind Accursi was a quartet of rookies, including defender Marie-Jo Pelletier and sharpshooter Brooke Stacey. When Buffalo has put a scare into the top teams, it’s been in high-scoring games. The Beauts won't be gutting out 1-0 wins if they’re going to take home the Isobel Cup.

How They Lose: Demers’ is an unknown. Yes, she’s fresh from a season spent in the collegiate circuit. Yes, she turned in a pair of excellent performances in her first weekend of NWHL action. But she’s almost certain to be under duress in the Beauts’ crease. Fujimagari’s struggles didn’t happen in a vacuum, and that Demers faced an average of 38.5 shots in her two games against the Riveters is indicative of a defense that needs to buckle down. If they advance and can’t tighten up against the Pride come Sunday, it’s going to be a brief playoff run for Buffalo.

METROPOLITAN RIVETERS (3)
10–11–3 — 23 pts.

Player To Watch: Kate Leary is as good a pick as any. The NWHL Newcomer of the Year was outstanding, her 16 goals and 27 points tied for fourth and seventh in the league, respectively. But the Riveters are Madison Packer’s team and the NWHL icon is going to be the driving force behind the club’s run, be it by will or by skill. The five-year league veteran led the way for the Riveters this season with 34 points and was arguably the most consistent player in the NWHL. There were only two games all season she failed to find the scoresheet and Packer is coming into the post-season riding a run of three goals and 14 points in her past 12 games.

How They Win: The standings says one thing about which team is the favorite entering Sunday’s semifinal against Minnesota. The season series between the Riveters and Whitecaps says another, though, as the clubs split their six games. Granted, Minnesota won on aggregate, outscoring Metropolitan 22-14, but the overall goal totals matter naught in a do-or-die format. Given the Riveters’ ability to score consistently and have outings where the defending is especially stingy, there’s every reason to believe they have what it takes to win the whole thing.

How They Lose: On the season as a whole, Walther has been good for the Riveters, but she stumbled heading into the post-season. In her past three outings, each against the Beauts, Walther allowed seven goals on 47 shots. That’s good for an .851 SP. It doesn’t help, either, that the Riveters lost some valuable momentum heading into the playoffs by dropping their regular season finale to the Beauts. A short memory will be helpful to shake any uncertainty.

MINNESOTA WHITECAPS (2)
17–5–2 — 36 pts.

Player To Watch: There’s no need to get cute with it and go off the board. It’s Allie Thunstrom. Named the NWHL’s co-MVP alongside Boston’s Jillian Dempsey, Thunstrom led the league with 24 goals – that’s one goal per game – and comes into the post-season as the most menacing sniper in the circuit. Since Jan. 1, Thunstrom has had six multi-goal games in 13 contests, including a two-goal game against the Beauts during the penultimate weekend of the regular season and a hat trick in the first half of the season-ending series against the Whale. Adding to her credits? She’s the NWHL’s resident giant killer. Thunstrom scored the late game-winning goal that handed the Pride their first and only loss of the season.

How They Win: Since losing to the Riveters on Jan. 4, the Whitecaps have lost only once. Minnesota is coming into the playoffs as hot as any team, and that includes the Pride. In fact, Minnesota and Boston are riding twin four-game winning streaks and the Whitecaps have been absolutely, positively dominant. They’ve scored 24 goals in their past four games and allowed eight against. By comparison, the Pride scored 16 and allowed three. By goal differential, it could be argued Minnesota is riding higher than any other club right now, and their mix of quick-strike offense, deep defense and stellar goaltending is going to be difficult to top.

How They Lose: Consistency has been an issue for Minnesota throughout the season. Teams they have dominated at points in the season have also given them issues at other junctures. After thumping the last-place Whale 6-3 last Saturday, the Whitecaps mustered a mere 3-1 victory last Sunday. So, which Minnesota team shows up? The world-beating group that is able to dismantle the opposition or the club that narrowly lost to the Whale and was downed by the Riveters mere months ago? If it's the latter, the dream of repeating as champions will end in a hurry.

BOSTON PRIDE (1)
23–1–0 — 46 pts.

Player To Watch: Talk about closing out the season strong. In her final two games of the campaign, NWHL Goaltender of the Year Lovisa Selander stopped every single puck that came her way in back-to-back wins over the Whale and Riveters. Matter of fact, Selander hasn’t surrendered a single goal against since the 9:40 mark of the third period of Boston’s Feb. 15 win over Connecticut, which means she’s entering the playoffs riding a 130:20 shutout streak. It wasn’t all that long ago that Katie Fitzgerald turned in consecutive post-season shutouts en route to a Riveters Isobel Cup victory. If anyone can match that mark, it’s Selander.

How They Win: Even when Selander has stumbled, and those outings have been a rarity, she’s received more than enough goal support from the league’s deepest attack. The Pride come at the opposition in waves. Dempsey, who led the league with 40 points, is the focal point of the attack, but she’s supported by Boston’s seven other 20-point scorers. The Pride scored 120 goals this season, 14 more than any other club, and their plus-77 goal differential is 23 clear of the next-best mark. Boston has it all.

How They Lose: Maybe the only thing the Pride don’t do well is find ways to stay out of the penalty box. Boston was shorthanded 90 times this season, which is tied for third in the league with Connecticut. So, let’s assume – because assuming never backfired in spectacular fashion – the Pride earn a spot in the final and draw the Whitecaps. If that’s the case, Boston’s lack of discipline could bite them against the league’s best power play. The Whitecaps connected on 23.3 percent of their power play opportunities. That said, the Pride also led the league with a 90 percent penalty kill and had a 22.9 power play percentage of their own. But the last thing Boston should want is for the winner-take-all final to come down to a special teams battle.

The Hockey News’ Prediction:
Play-In Game: Beauts defeat Whale
Semi-Finals: Whitecaps defeat Riveters; Pride defeat Beauts
Final: Pride defeat Whitecaps

THN’s Take: Admittedly, it’s a boring answer. All the favorites. But there's every reason to believe a coronation will take place this season. The Pride simply appear to be too deep and too talented at every position to fall short.

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