It’s been a long time since the Minnesota Whitecaps have played a game in front of their home fans. It was almost last week but because of travel/weather issues for the Metropolitan Riveters, Sunday’s playoff semifinal was pushed back to Friday night.
“We’re super excited,” said Whitecaps forward Allie Thunstrom when asked if she was excited about the upcoming game. “Obviously having the record sell-out, we weren’t totally surprised that our fans would come to the table. I think it’ll be a really awesome atmosphere. We haven’t had a home game since January so that is doubly exciting.”
On January 20, the Whitecaps completed a sweep of the Connecticut Whale with two shutouts on consecutive days at TRIA Rink. That was the last time the league’s top team - which is on a five-game winning streak - played a home game.
“It’s going to be even crazier and louder than it was during the season,” said Jonna Curtis who finished second in the league with 19 points. “This whole season in the NWHL, at least from my perspective, more and more people have been hearing about it and the Minnesota Whitecaps. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say they’re excited about the playoffs and want to get to a game. It's going to be great and we’re lucky to have that home-ice advantage. I know we have the best fans in the league.”
Thunstrom is hoping that the fans have a lot of energy built up, and she can’t wait to hit the ice on Friday night in front of a ninth consecutive sell-out for the Whitecaps.
“I can only imagine. They’ve been waiting since January to see us play again. Hopefully, that translates into really great support, a lot of noise, and all that,” she said proudly of her team’s fan base.
“The noise, all of their support has been incredible,” she added. “And it’s gotten better as the season has gone on, they’ve gotten to know us. That first game we were these new kids on the block, and we probably had a decent chunk of fans from all of the stuff we had been doing over the years, but now that we are an NWHL team and had the success that we’ve had I think it’s just amplified their support.”
“I’ll never forget our very first game where we didn’t know what to expect, and we had heard maybe two days before that it was sold out. We had never played a game there so we had no idea what that would mean as far as atmosphere goes. It was unbelievable, to get out there (on the ice) and see all of the cheering fans. They were all in their seats before warmups started I think,” said the former speed skater.
In goal, the expected matchup is Amanda Leveille and Katie Fitzgerald in what will be a sort of rubber match for the two talented puck stoppers. During postseason play in the NWHL, it was Leveille who topped Fitzgerald’s Riveters with the Beauts two seasons ago in the semifinals. Then last season, Fitzgerald returned the favor in a 1-0 Isobel Cup Final triumph. This season Leveille finished 11-4-0 with two shutouts in her first season with the Whitecaps.
“Lev has been a rock for us since Day One, and we knew going into this season she was going to be our girl. She’s done nothing to take that spotlight away from her, she’s been phenomenal all season,” said Thunstrom.
“So important,” replied Curtis when asked how much Leveille means to her teammates in Minnesota. “She kept us in so many games, especially our last game against Boston. She was huge. She played unbelievably, and when she does that, it gives us a much better chance as long as everyone else is on their game. She’s a key player and we’re very lucky to have her.”
During the regular season, the Whitecaps were a perfect 4-0 against the defending champions, but all of those games came in October. But as both Curtis and Thunstrom told us, those games mean nothing and have no bearing on what the outcome will be in a game that decides who plays Buffalo on Sunday for the 2019 Isobel Cup.
“We can’t make mistakes otherwise they are going to capitalize on it and we’re not going to be in the championship on Sunday,” Thunstrom simply said. “At this point, it doesn’t matter what our record was against them in the regular season. It’s a new time and they’re a new team from October and we can’t think about what happened then.”
“It’s nice that we’ve had that success, but it means nothing at this point,” she added. “It’s one game and anything can happen. At the beginning of the season, I still mean exactly what I said (in an interview): all of those games, even though some of the scores didn’t necessarily reflect it, they were hard-fought and tight matchups. They had their fair share of chances. We had ours. And the games really could have gone either way,” said Thunstrom.
Curtis added: “This game will be close, and I think we need to come prepared, and not even think about the fact that we were 4-0 against them. It doesn’t even matter at all right now. All that matters is that we come prepared, bring our game and we’re out there to win.”
“We know they’re great. We know they have really, really good players. We know they have solid goaltending. We know they’re talented and we are certain we aren’t just going to walk into this building and have an easy time,” Thunstrom said. "It’s going to be a grind from the second that puck drops until the final whistle.”