Even boasting the NWHL’s top scorer and the league’s second-most prolific offense, the Minnesota Whitecaps head into their showdown with the Metropolitan Riveters in the Isobel Cup semifinals on Sunday at Tria Rink focused on one thing: defense.
“We have to be better defensively,” Whitecaps co-coach Jack Brodt said. “It’s probably going to be a low-scoring game, and we’ve had better success when we’ve kept the scores low.”
Led by NWHL co-MVP Allie Thunstrom, who scored a league-record 24 goals this season, the Whitecaps (17-5-2) averaged more than four goals per game in the regular season. They crushed the Riveters 9-2 in the season opener, but the teams have split their six meetings.
Isobel Cup playoffs schedule
The New Jersey-based Riveters went 10-11-3 this season, despite playing Minnesota tough.
“We expect a barn burner of a game,” Brodt said. “The effort is going to be to try and shut them down, keep them to the outside, not leave our zone too early and then take our opportunities as they come.”
The two teams also met in the semifinals last year. The Whitecaps won 5-1 and then won the Isobel Cup the next week with a 2-1 overtime victory over the Buffalo Beauts.
Brodt, however, isn’t putting much stock into their playoff run last year. Every team looks different, he said, as most teams are missing top national players who joined the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association and sat out the season.
So the Whitecaps have asked others to step up. The most noticeable of those has been Thunstrom, who became the first player in league history to score more than 20 goals in a season.
After scoring six goals last year while skating on the third line, Thunstrom jumped up to the top line this season alongside Joanna Curtis and Meaghan Pezon. The trio have accounted for 46 goals and 47 assists.
“Our line is making plays, and sometimes I’m just on the lucky end of that,” Thunstrom said. “But I don’t feel special. There’s a lot of people getting me pucks so I can’t take all the credit.”
Brodt has been surprised by how much Thunstrom has produced but said he never doubted her abilities, calling her a “nightmare” for defensemen.
“She’s the fastest skater in women’s hockey at any level, U.S. team, Canada team,” he said.
If the Whitecaps win Sunday, they would likely have to play for the title on the road. The No. 1-seeded Boston Pride has just one loss this season — which came against Minnesota — and will host the championship, as long it avoids an upset against the Connecticut Whale (2-20-2), which stunned Buffalo in Friday’s play-in game.
Still, Minnesota hasn’t even begun to think about defending its championship next week.
“If we don’t focus on the Riveters, it will be over Sunday,” Brodt said.
Paul Hodowanic (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.