The NWHL playoffs are under a week away, rosters are set, and fans are preparing to see an Isobel Cup champion crowned after a two-year wait. Season six in the NWHL brought an unprecedented level of parity to the league, making all these teams a likely winner in Boston this week. If you’ve yet to pick a team, or you’re a fan of the now eliminated Buffalo Beauts or Metropolitan Riveters, you may be undecided on who to root for or where to place your bets. Do you go for the reigning champs, the expansion team, last year’s cup favorite, or the underdog?
Let’s take a look at why each team should win, and how they can do it.
The Boston Pride
Why: The Boston Pride were meant to play in last year’s Isobel Cup Final after a dominant fifth season, where they went 23-1, only to be denied a chance at competing for the Cup by the pandemic shutdown. A big part of the Pride’s dominance was a core containing all-stars like Jillian Dempsey, Kaleigh Fratkin, Mallory Souliotis, and McKenna Brand. But despite the successful careers that the Pride’s leadership group has sustained in Boston, only Dempsey has won a cup, and that was way back in 2016. Despite the absolute dominance that the aforementioned players have asserted over the league in recent seasons, they don’t have the hardware to prove it and they never got a chance last year. The era of the Pride under Dempsey’s captaincy deserves its place in NWHL history, with a banner and trophy to prove it.
How: The Pride struggled in Lake Placid, with their only wins coming against the last place Beauts. A typically unstoppable offense was held to one goal against Connecticut, Toronto, and Minnesota. In their final two games against Buffalo, the Pride offense finally exploded, including an eruption from first overall pick Sammy Davis who picked up 4 goals to lead the team. Now that the rookies have a few pro games under their belt and are more acquainted with the pro game, the Pride should be able to lean on them as teams look to shut down the top line of Putigna, Dempsey, and Brand that combined for 44 goals last season. The Pride also have the advantage of playing at their home rink, even if they won’t technically be the home team in the semifinals. If they can take advantage of their familiarity with the ice and the boards to execute plays, they can find a path to victory.
The Connecticut Whale
Why: The Connecticut Whale is the only one of the founding four NWHL teams not to win, and it’s now or never for the long-time captain and fan favorite Shannon Doyle, who will retire after this season. Few moments would be more emotional than witnessing one of the best defenders in the NWHL and the heart of the Whale team hoisting Connecticut’s first-ever Isobel Cup. Additionally, this Whale team is one of the best we’ve seen in years, improving mightily after three seasons where they won only 7 of their 56 games. From worst to first would show significant growth for the franchise, in large part due to general managers Bray Ketchum and Amy Scheer’s roster-building.
How: Connecticut went 2-2 and had a strong start in Lake Placid, including a huge win against the Pride where they scored four goals in the final period. What’s clear from their games last month is that this is a Whale team whose strengths are reliable defense, resilience, staying out of the penalty box, and even strength offense. Tori Howran has proven herself to be the puck-moving defender Whale fans hoped for, and Russ, Friesen, and Wolfieher have become a dangerous offensive trio. The one area the team hopes to improve during the playoffs is the power play, as they only scored one goal with the player advantage this season. With the addition of Samoskevich, who scored 9 power-play goals during her time at Quinnipiac, they may have their answer.
The Minnesota Whitecaps
Why: While the Whitecaps are the reigning champions, the team looks a lot different from the team that won it all in 2018. Players like Richards and Morse who Whitecaps fans have come to know and love weren’t with the team yet. Other players, like top goal scorer Allie Thunstrom, had yet to reach the stardom they have now. The new core group had a much-deserved chance to etch their name in Whitecaps history and win the cup last year before being denied the opportunity due to COVID-19. As a result, they’re hungrier than ever and determined to show Minnesota that they’re still just as capable of bringing the cup home as they were two seasons ago. This Whitecaps team has something special. Fans saw it in the comeback against the Six after being down 5-1. Now is the time for them to prove it.
How: The Whitecaps are a fast team, relying on a quick transition play, overpowering offense, and always stellar goaltending from Amanda Leveille. Nearly every forward on the team has what it takes to be offensive dynamite, and so far in season six it’s been Audra Richards and Nina Rodgers bringing the heat. Rodgers is having the breakout season many knew she was capable of since her rookie year in Connecticut, with 6 points in 4 games, and if she continues the momentum in the Isobel Cup playoffs she can help the Whitecaps bring the hardware home again. However, Minnesota could use some help from their usual stars, as last year’s league leader in points Thunstrom didn’t record a goal in Lake Placid and fellow all-star Jonna Curtis had only one. If the Whitecaps can get Curtis, Thunstrom, Richards, and Rodgers all going at the same time in Boston, they’ll be able to overwhelm any team in the league.
The Toronto Six
Why: What better way to welcome women’s hockey back to Toronto than with a championship? The young, exciting team is led by current points leader Mikyla Grant-Mentis, a rookie sensation who brings the NWHL to a new level of play in every game. We’ll likely be hearing Grant-Mentis’ name for a long, long time, but what better way to kick off a pro career than winning a cup as a rookie with a brand-new franchise? In addition to Grant-Mentis, the team also contains several members of former CWHL teams like the Markham Thunder and Toronto Furies, looking to bring glory back to Canada after a year without a professional women’s hockey league in the country. The history behind the Toronto Six makes them more than just an expansion team story, theirs is a tale of evolving, surviving and thriving.
How: For the number one seed going into the playoffs, it’s hard to say anything beyond “keep doing what you’re doing.” Sarah Steele has been an underrated stay-at-home defender for the Six, while Lindsay Eastwood helps drive the play. Elaine Chuli is having one of her best seasons in goal yet, with a .936 save percentage in the regular season.
Emotionally, the Six need to lean on the vets to guide them through their first Isobel Cup. Players like Shiann Darkangelo and Kristen Barbara have won either NWHL or CWHL championships, but the Six also have an abundance of players fresh out of college who will be leaning on them for guidance. The youth factor has both helped and hurt the Six before, as we saw in the loss to Minnesota when they gave up a four-goal lead, but they were able to bounce back strong and win every game since. Toronto should also look to get more scoring throughout their roster. Captain Shiann Darkangelo has dominated the faceoff circle and consistently set up her team for success, having 3 assists and 5 takeaways, but the only thing she hasn’t done yet is score. If she gets hot in the playoffs, nothing will stand in the way of the Six bringing the cup home to Canada.
Photo Credit: (Michelle Jay for The Boston Globe)