ALL PHOTOS BY TROY PARLA
In four games this season, the Minnesota Whitecaps outscored the Metropolitan Riveters, 18-6, sweeping the season series. But that was in October, which in March, feels like a lifetime ago. On Friday night (7 PM CT/8 PM ET) the Riveters get a chance at redemption when the defending Isobel Cup champions head to the State of Hockey with a chance to play for the NWHL championship on the line.
“We saw Minnesota way back at the beginning of the season, but after these last two games and coming into these playoffs we’re a different team now. We’re a different group of Riveters,” said Alexa Gruschow, who had two goals in the playoff opener against the Connecticut Whale. “So we’re going to bring our game and maybe they’ll be thinking about what they saw at the beginning of the year and think they are going to see the same thing. They’re not. We know the time is now. It’s playoffs and it’s one game, do or die. So we’re going to give it our all in Minnesota, that’s for sure.”
Gruschow now has four career points (3g-1) in four career playoff games, including the only goal in the Isobel Cup Final last March.
The goalie that the Riveters beat in that game, Amanda Leveille, is now the Whitecaps starter, who finished the regular season in a tie for the league-lead in wins.
“Hopefully we figured a couple of things out by now (about Leveille), and hopefully not the other way around,” said Miye D'Oench, who like many of her teammates, will be playing her third playoff game in three seasons against Leveille. “She’s a great goalie and we have to get in front of her, that’s the biggest thing.”
At the other end of the ice, Katie Fitzgerald has been fantastic over her last four starts. “This team definitely feels like previous Riveters teams, especially in the locker room, things like that,” said the Riveters goalie following the win over the Whale. “We just have good vibes and everyone has good energy so it’s really good to see that all coming together in the home stretch here. We’re hoping to carry that into this weekend on the way to Minnesota.”
In the two consecutive wins to end the season and start the playoffs, Fitzgerald surrendered the first goal early, but bounced back to shut down the games and earn the wins. But in true goalie fashion, she gave a heap of praise to her teammates. “Not the start we or I wanted but luckily all of our forwards and defenders picked me up after that and tied it up. We really battled back, gritted our teeth, and pulled out a win,” she said. “It was nice to see us really just play resilient hockey again. That’s something that we did a lot in the past and kind of got away from this year. It’s really good to see us getting that grit back.”
D’Oench didn’t pay in any of the games against the Whitecaps this season, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t familiar with the players she’ll be facing off against on Friday night. “Women’s hockey is a pretty small world so I know most of those girls or I’ve at least played against most of them,” she said. “I’m excited. It’s always fun to play a really fast team, a team that has a lot of chemistry - they’ve been together or playing together for a lot longer than most of the NWHL teams. I’m really excited to be in an atmosphere where it’s a sold-out crowd.”
The Whitecaps will have the distinct home-ice advantage on Friday, playing in front of the ninth consecutive sell-out crowd at TRIA Rink. Minnesota hockey fans sold out the semifinal in 25 hours, the fastest sellout in league history.
Among the people in that sellout crowd will be Audra Richards’ family and she’s looking forward to getting another chance to play in her home state and in front of so many people she knows. “Playing in front of my home crowd is pretty awesome and my parents being in the stands is the best part,” she said.
But this is mostly a business trip, despite the homecoming for Richards. “The Whitecaps are fast, so we have to come out with the fastest hockey we’ve ever played,” she said. “I think if we play the way we did in the last game against Buffalo we’ll have success against Minnesota. Speed is key in this game because they have Kendall Coyne Schofield, they have Allie Thunstrom, and they can be detrimental if they get loose.”
Coyne Schofield and Thunstrom are just two of the threats the Riveters will have to worry about on a deep Minnesota roster. Breakout sensation Jonna Curtis, a finalist for the NWHL Newcomer of the Year, led the Whitecaps and tied for second in the league with 19 points on the season. Minnesota also boasts Coyne Schofield’s Olympic teammates forward Hannah Brandt and defender Lee Stecklein
The winner of Friday’s semifinal will book a date to the Isobel Cup Final on Sunday. For the Riveters, it will be a chance to redeem a season that hasn’t gone to plan. For the Whitecaps, it will be a fitting continuation of the magic that has been their inaugural NWHL campaign.
Catch all of the Isobel Cup Playoffs action on Twitter.com/NWHL.