Blow for blow, shot for shot, the Metropolitan Riveters and Buffalo Beauts kept pace with one another for an entire campaign as the NWHL’s two top teams. And, as such, it was fitting that Sunday’s Isobel Cup final between the first- and second-place rivals was decided by the slimmest of margins.
It didn’t take long for the contest to have its opening goal little more than five minutes into the first frame on a stunning, highlight-reel worthy individual effort from NWHL leading scorer Alexa Gruschow. After having her initial backhand blocked by Rebecca Vint, Gruschow scooped up the loose puck while diving towards the Beauts goal and hoisted a shot over Amanda Leveille’s glove. For Gruschow, a second-year pro who registered nine goals and 22 points in 16 games during the regular season, the tally was her first of the post-season.
It also didn’t take long for the final, a clash between two teams who’ve shown a dislike for each other throughout the campaign, to nearly boil over. Late in the first, Beauts defender Sarah Casorso drove Madison Packer, the Riveters star and NWHL’s leading goal scorer, into the boards from behind. Casorso was tagged with a minor for boarding and a 10-minute misconduct, but it appeared the play was going to cost Packer the remainder of the outing as she remained prone on the ice for several minutes before being helped to the dressing room. Fortunately, Packer was able to return by the second frame.
However, despite the Riveters and Beauts finishing the regular season as the two highest scoring teams in the league, combining for 115 goals during the campaign, Gruschow’s marker wasn’t a sign of what was to come. In fact, if her goal was evidence of anything, it was that it was going to take a truly special effort for either team to find twine again. Granted, a goaltending duel could have been expected given Leveille finished the campaign with a .918 save percentage, the second-best marker in the league, with Riveters netminder Katie Fitzgerald boasting a rock-solid .920 SP and 1.87 goals-against average en route to completing the season as the NWHL’s top goaltender.
So, as the first continued following Gruschow’s game-opening goal, the Beauts pressed for the tying marker but came up empty handed despite a pair of glorious opportunities. Shortly after the Riveters had taken the early lead, Vint had an opportunity to jam home a loose puck that sat uncovered in the Riveters crease, but the stuff attempt was denied when her stick was tied up at the last second and Fitzgerald reached back to smother the puck. Not long after, Hayley Scamurra broke down the left wing only to be stopped by Fitzgerald, who turned aside all six shots she faced in the first.
Fitzgerald and Beauts counterpart Leveille continued to dazzle as the contest continued. In the second frame, the two netminders combined for 13 stops, including a few on high-quality chances as both teams earned odd-man rushes during the frame. The most crucial of the stops came when Leveille kicked away a Miye D’Oench shot through a screen as the Riveters looked to get the insurance tally.
After Leveille had bailed the Beauts out on a few rushes, though, it was Fitzgerald’s turn to take over the contest, and she was tested early and often in the final frame. The Riveters keeper didn’t show even the slightest of cracks in the third, however, standing tall in the face of a few scrambled plays and rushes, kicking away all eight shots she faced in the period. All told, Fitzgerald finished the contest with 21 stops and a clean sheet — her second in a row and third across the entire campaign — to not only propel the Riveters to the franchise’s first Isobel Cup and a victory over their defending-champion rivals, but also earn honors as the Isobel Cup MVP.
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