By Mike Murphy
What better way to celebrate the last weekend of the 2019-20 regular season before the 2020 NWHL All-Star Weekend in Boston than with the most highly-anticipated games of the year to date?
This Saturday, the Minnesota Whitecaps (12-4-2) will host the Boston Pride (19-0-0) at TRIA Rink in St. Paul at 6:00 p.m. CST; they will play again on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. CST. That’s two games between the league’s best two teams in less than 24 hours.
The NWHL’s two top teams haven’t met since Oct. 20 when the Pride handed the Whitecaps their worst loss of the season – a 5-2 statement victory that established Boston as the team to beat. Since that meeting, Boston has maintained a perfect record and Minnesota has gone 8-2-0 in their last 10 games.
If Boston picks up a single point in their five remaining games, they will clinch first place in the standings, but there is still a lot on the line on Saturday. The result of this weekend’s games could reveal which team has the best chance of winning the 2020 Isobel Cup.
It’s important not to read too much into small sample sizes, but it’s worth noting that the Whitecaps are the only team that has out-shot the Pride this season. On Oct. 19, the Whitecaps poured 48 shots on Lovisa Selander, but came away with a 3-1 defeat. In their next meeting, Minnesota put 37 shots on net, but Boston’s offense managed 47.
This Saturday, the Whitecaps need to win the battle at even strength and keep things simple in the defensive zone. Forced exit passes against a forecheck like Boston’s can very easily end up in the back of the net. If Minnesota wants to spoil the Pride’s undefeated season, they need to limit their mistakes and choose when to use their team speed effectively. They need to play like the team that won the 2019 Isobel Cup.
The Pride will be going for a nearly-unbelievable 20th consecutive win on Saturday, but their road to a 19-0-0 record hasn’t been without trials.
Boston was pushed to overtime by the Buffalo Beauts on Dec. 21 and needed the shootout to get past the Connecticut Whale on Dec. 28. On Monday, the Pride squandered a two-goal lead in the first period against the Riveters 3-3 in the third period before Mallory Souliotis scored the game-winner with just under 11 minutes remaining in regulation.
Despite those recent bumps in the road, the Pride are very much the class of the NWHL. Six of the 14 skaters with 20 or more points play for the Pride and Boston’s 45.58 SF60 (shots for per-hour) and 27.18 SA60 (shots against per-hour) are both in a class of their own. Furthermore, Boston’s +70 even strength goal differential speaks volumes about the quality of their play at evens.
One player to watch closely this weekend is winger McKenna Brand. After going through a lull where she scored two goals in seven games, Brand got back on the scoreboard on Monday against the Riveters. It will be up to Minnesota’s defense and Amanda Leveille to stop her from going on another tear.
Minnesota has been in championship form as of late and the team’s 2020 All-Stars have been leading the way.
Over the last two weekends the Whitecaps have rediscovered their offense averaging a staggering 7.0 goals per-game over the last four games against the Beauts and Whale. One of the players who has helped turn things around for Minnesota’s offense is All-Star winger Allie Thunstrom. The six goals the Boston College alumna has scored in her last four games has vaulted her into the NWHL’s goal-scoring lead with 16 goals in 18 games. She has one goal and two assists in five career games against Boston.
The offensive punch provided by Thunstrom, Jonna Curtis, Nicole Schammel, Audra Richards, and Amanda Boulier – who leads all defenders in scoring (21 points) heading into the weekend – in recent weeks hasn’t been enough to overshadow the play of Minnesota’s All-Star in the goal crease.
Leveille has been downright dominant over the last two months. She’s bringing a .935 save percentage and a streak of 10 consecutive starts allowing two goals or less into Saturday’s game. However, the last time Leveille played the Pride she surrendered five goals. This is a game that has probably been circled on her calendar for a few months.
Tickets for Saturday and Sunday’s games at TRIA are available at whitecaps.nwhl.zone/tickets. Fans can watch both games streaming live and free on the NWHL on Twitch.
Photo Credit: Michelle Jay