By Mike Murphy
The 2020 NWHL All-Star Weekend is over. Now begins the final dash to the 2020 Isobel Cup Playoffs. The Boston Pride return to Warrior Ice Arena to host the Connecticut Whale this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET with designs on picking up right where they left off before the All-Star break.
On paper, the Pride and Whale are two teams that couldn’t be further apart at this stage of the season. Boston is 20-1-0 and has already locked up home-ice advantage for the playoffs while the Whale are 2-16-2 and will have to face the team that finishes fourth in the standings to punch a ticket to the Isobel Cup semifinals. But, make no mistake, the mighty Pride cannot afford to take Saturday’s visitors lightly.
The Whale started the season with a brutal 0-12-2 record. It’s vital to note that the Whale were without All-Star defender Jordan Brickner for four of those games and that nine of those 14 defeats were in games determined by a one or two-goal deficit. Head coach Colton Orr also didn’t join the team until well after the start of the 2019-20 season.
On Dec. 28, the Whale forced played the then-undefeated Pride to a 1-1 stalemate in regulation that forced a shootout. Pride rookie forward Tori Sullivan sealed the game in the shootout to extend her team’s winning streak, but the Whale proved something to the hockey world that day: there was no outworking the Whale. The Whale are 2-4-0 in their last six games and have scored more goals in that window than they did in the nine games that preceded it. They’re a better team than their record might suggest.
Emma Vlasic is coming off a big two-assist performance in the 2020 NWHL All-Star Game and leads the Whale with nine goals. To put that number into perspective, the Whale’s next two leading goal scorers – Kayla Meneghin and Sarah Schwenzfeier – have eight goals, combined. Before the All-Star break, she had four goals in her last five games, including a goal against the Pride on Jan. 12.
Vlasic has become a player that opposing teams need to have a game plan for. Her dominance on the faceoff dot – 58.7 percent – and quick release makes her the Whale’s most valuable player in the offensive zone. There have been times when Connecticut looked down and out in games this season right before Vlasic won a big offensive zone faceoff that resulted in a goal or a change in momentum.
Watch for the matchup between Jillian Dempsey and Vlasic on Saturday night. They are two of the best players on the dot in the game and two of the best two-way centers in the NWHL.
The Pride know they have home-ice advantage for the Isobel Cup semifinals, but Saturday’s game is their last at Warrior before the playoffs. They will finish up the season with two games on the road against the Whale at Webster Arena on Feb. 22 and at ProSkate against the Riveters on Feb. 23.
Boston has its sights set on becoming the first team in NWHL history to win a second Isobel Cup, but their success in the regular season will mean nothing once the puck drops for the 2020 Isobel Cup Playoffs. The Pride need to keep their foot on the gas so that they can enter the playoffs with confidence. There is no more important game remaining on the schedule than their final stop at home in the regular season this Saturday.
Photo Credit: Michelle Jay