By Matt Falkenbury
The sprint towards the 2020 Isobel Cup Playoffs is finally here. It’s my favorite time of year as the importance of the games takes on greater meaning with the end of the regular season coming so quickly.
The Riveters know they will either finish in third place and face the Whitecaps in the semi-finals or in fourth place and face the Whale in the first round. Neither road will be easy, but the Rivs do control which path they take as long as they play winning hockey in the next five games.
For the first time this season, the Buffalo Beauts will make a trip to New Jersey and rekindle the best rivalry in the NWHL. The fan bases are so intense, the media coverage of the games always goes up a notch and the players have these games circled on the calendar. They might have been buddy-buddy during All-Star Weekend as teammates on either All-Star team, but we all know that comes to a halt once the puck drops this weekend
Here are my three keys to the matchups this weekend as the Riveters face-off with the Beauts on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET). Tickets for both games are available at riveters.nwhl.zone/tickets and the action will be streaming live and free on the NWHL on Twitch.
There were significant concerns about Sam Walther’s season after a collision forced her to leave the Riveters’ last game before the All-Star break. Has an appearance in a Skills Competition ever meant more than when we saw No. 70 out on the ice participating last Saturday in Boston?
Walther is someone who has really come into her own this season. She is the straw that stirs the drink for this team on a game-in, game-out basis. The Riveters’ best chance of making it to the Isobel Cup Final is with Walther healthy and ready to make big saves in the blue paint.
The Beauts season has certainly taken a turn for the worse over the past couple of months, but Taylor Accursi continues to be a force of nature. Opposing teams have learned the hard way that must be accounted for every time she hits the ice.
Tied for third in the league in goals with 15 and second in the league in shooting percentage at 20%, Accursi has easily been the Beauts’ MVP. She can singlehandedly wreck a game for an opposing team. Accursi had a four-goal third period against the Riveters in the outdoor game in December and she had a third-period hat trick against the Whitecaps in Buffalo’s only win against a team not named the Whale.
When No. 95 is on the ice, watch out.
This rivalry might have a slew of new players, but the hate remains the same. The last time these two teams met up, a kerfuffle broke out that led to a pair of suspensions as a result of matching fighting majors.
The Beauts (13.67 PIM/GP) and Riveters (12.63 PIM/GP) are first and second in the league, respectively, in penalty minutes. It’s also important to note that the Beauts have the most efficient power play in the league (22.22 percent) whereas the Riveters’ power play is ranked fourth with a success rate of 16.25 percent. The team that stays out of the box the most this weekend should be victorious, so the Riveters will want to make team discipline a top priority.
This weekend’s games are about more than just bragging rights – playoff positioning is on the line. Furthermore, both teams want to build momentum heading into the playoffs and four of the Riveters’ five last games are against the Beauts. No matter how physical and frustrating things might get, the Rivs need to keep their eyes on the prize.
Photo Credit: Mike Hetzel