The moments immediately following her semifinal-winning overtime goal against the Metropolitan Riveters were a blur for Allie Thunstrom. She had scored the lone goal in what had to that point been a scoreless draw in the winner-take-all contest and, in doing so, had sent the Minnesota Whitecaps to the Isobel Cup final for a second consecutive season. She’s since watched the goal back and has been able to relive the moment she tucked a backhand past the Riveters’ Sam Walther, but what Thunstrom recalled from the post-goal craziness were three things.
“I jumped into the boards and then was like, 'I gotta get to everybody,’” Thunstrom said. “And I wanted to get to ‘Lev,’ too.”
And with good reason. If not for Amanda Leveille, the Whitecaps’ all-star netminder, there wouldn’t have been overtime, there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for Thunstrom’s heroics and there certainly wouldn’t have still existed the potential for Minnesota to play for the chance to become the first back-to-back Isobel Cup champions in NWHL history. Throughout her nearly 67 minutes of play, Leveille went head-to-head with Walther in a post-season goaltending clinic. Walther turned aside all but one of the 31 shots she faced, while Leveille stood tall on all 28 that came her way.
To hear Thunstrom tell it, it’s Leveille’s play throughout that game – and throughout the season, truly – that allowed the Whitecaps to get the win. They were able to become more aggressive on the attack with Leveille providing the “calming presence” that she so often does. “We had faith in Lev behind us,” Thunstrom said. “She's phenomenal game in and game out. We had that confidence in the back that we could take a few more chances and try to put one past.”
In a sense, this is becoming old hat for Leveille, her standing on her head in the post-season something of a yearly tradition. All told, she’s stopped all but seven of the 127 shots she’s faced in the post-season throughout her four seasons in the NWHL. That’s good for a .945 save percentage, which makes it no wonder that Leveille is about to take part in not her second, not her third, but her fourth consecutive Isobel Cup final. Already a two-time Isobel Cup champion, too, Leveille enters the 2020 game with the chance to make league history as the NWHL’s first three-time winner – not that she’s about to take any of the credit.
“I've been very fortunate to be on a lot of extremely talented teams in the NWHL,” Leveille said. “I've said this before, but when I'm in the locker room before I go on the ice and I look around at all the talent that I have in the dressing room and all the people that I have in front of me, I'm pretty confident that they're going to be able to do their job, block shots if they need to and clear rebounds. That really helps me settle down so all I have to focus on is just stopping the puck.”
Leveille has done a lot of that this season, too. Matter of fact, she was the league’s busiest keeper this season, playing a league-high 1,354 minutes, facing a league-high 724 shots and stopping rubber in bulk. Her 677 saves were nearly 40 more than the second-highest total, which was Walther’s 638 saves. But the work isn’t done yet. Come Friday evening, the Whitecaps will step onto the ice for the one-off, do-or-die Isobel Cup final against the hometown Boston Pride, who didn’t so much finish atop the standings as they did lap the field.
On paper, any team – the Whitecaps, Riveters, Connecticut Whale or Buffalo Beauts – would be set to enter the final as underdogs. However, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is obvious: the Whitecaps were the only club to hand the Pride a loss this season, Minnesota responsible for the only blemish on what has been an otherwise perfect season for Boston. The second is that despite the considerable turnover the NWHL saw in the wake of a changing women’s hockey landscape, the Whitecaps have plenty of holdovers from last season’s Cup-winning club. In all, 13 players from the 2018-19 championship team are back. Experience is always a benefit to the team that has it.
But as Leveille explained, there’s a third factor at play. The Whitecaps feel as though they’ve played every game for months on end with that must-win feeling, and it’s certainly an attitude that crystallized after a slow start to the season. Leveille said Minnesota has tried to take the same approach to every game this season, be it in the practices leading up to a mid-season outing against the Whale or the minutes before they stepped foot on ice in the semifinal against the Riveters. And the belief is that preparing for every game as if it were the biggest game of the campaign will mitigate the nerves when the league’s grandest prize is on the line.
“If you've already been in this situation before and you've practiced all year hard like it's the most important practice when you're going into any game, it's what you're used to. It's a routine you've been in. There’s no reason to be extra nervous for anything, it's just another game of hockey,” Leveille said. “And at the end of it, if you win, you get to throw your gloves and drop a banner, which is pretty special.”
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