The season didn’t go as planned for the Metropolitan Riveters, as the NWHL's defending champions finished the campaign 4-12-0. Now they have a tough road back to reclaim the Isobel Cup, needing three more wins to capture back-to-back titles. By virtue of their win in the season finale against the Buffalo Beauts the Riveters will at least start the postseason at home when they host the Connecticut Whale on Thursday at 7 PM at RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House. Tickets are available at NWHL.zone/tickets.
The winner gets to travel to the midwest for a battle with the top-seed Minnesota Whitecaps on Sunday afternoon. But one game at a time.
“We're a good hockey team that can win on any given night. We haven’t shown that this season, but it’s the playoffs,” Madison Packer said ahead of the Isobel Cup Playoffs. “People come alive and our group is having fun. That was a huge win for us from a confidence standpoint.”
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No one said it would be easy, but now the stakes are higher and the Riveters do have a core of players that know how to win playoff games together - last season they didn’t allow a goal in two games while scoring six of them. It also appears that their goaltender, the one who was the MVP of the playoffs last March, has found her mojo again.
“I felt good. I was seeing the puck (well). We adapted to a bit of a new way to cover in the D-zone, and I think that really helped eliminate the pass out plays and really high-quality chances in the slot,” said Katie Fitzgerald who stopped 40 shots in the Riveters 4-3 win on Sunday.”Keeping them to the perimeter and point shots really made it easier for me. e were tying up sticks and blocking shots. I think everything made it more manageable and a bit calmer.
Her teammates had high praise for their netminder after the win over Buffalo. “That was the best game Fitzy has played all year. Maybe in the past two seasons," said Rebecca Russo. "I’ve never seen a goaltender play like that. When we have the goaltender to the defense to the forwards, when we’re all in like that - good things happen and I know we’re going to win."
“I thought she played well,” said Packer of Fitzgerald. “We did a good job of finally blocking a few shots, but they still got 40-something on her. She’s doing a better job of controlling those rebounds and when she sees the puck, she’ll save it. So we have to help her out and clear the front of the net and do our jobs so she can do hers.”
It was just one game, but for one game the Riveters finally resembled the team that walked away with the title last year. Despite falling behind in an 0-2 hole they rallied to take a late lead in the third period and then even after surrendering a tying goal at the end of regulation, and falling behind in the shootout, they were able to rally and pull out a win.
“We won as a team today. We had a few ups and downs throughout the week; I wasn’t here for practices with the flu. I just met (new assistant) Coach Terry (Watt) today before the game,” said Russo. “We came in the locker room with a game plan and we were all together. One hundred percent. I’m so happy today with this outcome. We won and this is just going to bring us forward for the week. We got home ice, which is the most important thing that we could have done today. We’re going to play on Thursday at 7 against Connecticut. We’re going to win that game and then we’re going to go to Minnesota.”
A few minutes later Packer offered up some similar confidence in her squad as they were already turning their attention to the playoffs less than a half hour following the shootout win over Buffalo. “We focus on ourselves, I think that’s what we did today. When you focus on yourself, focus on the controllables, that’s when you can be successful,” said the fourth-year Riveter.
Another huge part of their confidence should be the play of their special team's units. Two of their three goals in regulation came via the power play, a power play that had produced just four goals in 56 tries during the first fifteen games of the season. If they can keep that aspect of their game going, that could be a game changer. On the other side, the penalty killers were a perfect 7-for-7 against the high-powered Beauts which is a change from the season when they were last among the five NWHL teams.
“We just knew what we had to do coming into the game today. We had to play together and we had to put pucks on the net, (Shannon) Szabados is a fabulous goaltender. We just got pucks to the net - Courtney (Burke) had a great, great thread-the-needle pass to Packer on that first power-play goal,” said Russo of her team’s performance in the finale. She also chipped in a power play goal of her own on the day.
“I just went to the net. We were moving the puck well on that power play, and Kiira (Dosdall) just took it and fired it towards the net,” explained the third-year winger. “I just hit it, and when I saw that puck go in, blood was rushing through my body. I was just so happy."
Packer has admitted over the course of the season throughout some of their winless streaks that they weren’t having much fun. But that all changed, and now with the playoffs on the horizon, their opponents are going to get the Riveters best.
“We’ll be playing at home (Thursday) and the team is happy. It’s the first time in a long time I think everyone had fun from start to finish. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t perfect and they obviously outshot us by a lot. We have a lot of stuff to clean up and fix but I think we’re moving in the right direction that we need to move in for the next couple of games,” said the Rivs' all-time leading goal scorer.
“You’re playing for your life now, right? Everyone makes the playoffs in this league and anything can happen in the playoffs as we’ve seen in the past. We have a new assistant coach who changed some things up as far as system-wise, changed the lines up a little bit. I think it was just a different energy. We’ve had a lot of conversations as a group the last couple of weeks and we’re committed to each other. Hockey has to be fun or it’s not going to be pretty.”
The Riveters had fun on Sunday and if they have more fun on Thursday and the following Sunday, they just might find themselves in a prime position to defend the Isobel Cup.