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NWHL Playoff Preview: It's a three-horse race for the Isobel Cup

The NWHL post-season begins Thursday with a play-in game, and the stage will be set for the Isobel Cup final before the weekend is through. Which two teams will win their way to the winner-take-all affair and who comes out on top?
Kirsten Burton/Minnesota Whitecaps

Kirsten Burton/Minnesota Whitecaps

Thursday night in New Jersey, the Isobel Cup playoffs will officially get underway. And this season, the NWHL post-season has an added wrinkle.

With the addition of the Minnesota Whitecaps this season, and thus the expansion to a five-team league, the NWHL has mandated that each of the league’s teams will be playing in the post-season, with Thursday’s playoff-opening contest a play-in game between the fourth-seeded Metropolitan Riveters and fifth-seeded Connecticut Whale.

In keeping with the past, though, the format each round of the playoffs remains unchanged, making each and every contest all important in the run to the Isobel Cup. Each round, including the play-in, will be determined in a one-off affair. That means the winners are moving on and the losers are going home with nothing to show for their season.

So, who ends this season in the NWHL’s winner’s circle? Here’s a look at who to watch and how each team will either win or lose, as well as our predictions for the post-season:

CONNECTICUT WHALE (5)
2-10-2 — 6 pts.

Player To Watch: Katerina Mrazova’s desire was to play in North America, and after five years at University of Minnesota-Duluth, she made the most of her first opportunity in the NWHL. In 15 games, she posted six goals and 12 points, but more than that, she gave the Whale a legitimate top-line scoring option. Connecticut is short on those, and the offense is thin, which makes Mrazova’s contributions all the more important. As Mrazova goes, so will the Whale attack.

How They Win: It comes down to Meeri Raisanen. Her overall numbers might not shine — a .908 save percentage and 3.03 goals-against average — but they belie the fact she faced more shots against per outing than any other keeper in the league. All it will take for the Whale to stun the NWHL’s best is for Raisanen to go on a run. She’s shown the ability to do it before, and now would be the optimal time for the Finnish keeper to turn it up.

How They Lose: While downing the Riveters is a 50-50 proposition, it’s going to take a minor miracle for the Whale to get by the Whitecaps. Minnesota has run roughshod over Connecticut all season, and the Whale were not only blanked in the four-game season series, but dropped the four outings by a combined 19-2 scoreline. The outlook isn’t promising after the play-in game.

METROPOLITAN RIVETERS (4)
4-12-0 — 8 pts.

Player To Watch: In no way has this been the best season of Katie Fitzgerald’s NWHL career. In her third campaign on the circuit, she watched her SP drop precipitously and her GAA average skyrocket. But facing a tough test on the final day of the regular season, Fitzgerald turned in a gem: a 40-save performance against the Buffalo Beauts that allowed the Riveters to stun the second-place squad in a shootout. If Fitzgerald is feeling it, there’s no keeper who can steal a game quite like her. She didn’t allow a single goal against during the entire 2017-18 Isobel Cup playoffs.

How They Win: Fitzgerald’s up-and-down play might mean the Riveters need to blast their waypast opponents. Surely, that’s no easy task, but the job gets that slight bit easier when your offense is led by Amanda Kessel. The Riveters and Team USA star was brilliant in her return to the league this season, though primarily as a pass-first player with assists making up 14 of her 16 points. The good news is the Riveters — and Kessel — have a sniper in their ranks. Madison Packer’s seven goals tied her for seventh in the NWHL and she really started to come on during the late stages of the season, netting four goals and eight points in her past five games. The offense needs to click.

How They Lose: The depth beyond Kessel and Packer isn’t anything to write home about. In fact, they duo were the only two Riveters to crack double digits in scoring this season while only six players had more than five points to their names. The worry has to be that should the Riveters get through the play-in game the Whitecaps defense will shut down Kessel and Packer and render the attack toothless. If no one else can step up, and step up in a big way, it could be a short post-season for the defending champions.

BOSTON PRIDE (3)
10-5-0 — 20 pts.

Player To Watch: Let’s take a second to talk about Katie Burt. The Pride netminder had a few so-so starts in her first handful of games as an NWHL rookie, posting a sub-.900 SP in three of her first five games. Since that time, though, Burt has been spectacular, particularly of late as she’s turned in a .925 SP across her past eight outings. Fresh off a turn at the Canada-USA Rivalry Series, Burt put on display why she’s a world-class keeper. She can steal games, and she’s playing the best hockey of her brief pro career at just the right time.

How They Win: Even if Burt should falter, the Pride boast one thing that no other team in the NWHL does: a pair of 10-goal scorers. Both Gigi Marvin and Jillian Dempsey hit the mark this season for Boston, whose 55 goals as a team this season were only two off of top spot in the league. The offense can dig this team out of just about any hole. There are plenty of high-end scorers throughout the top six, and that will make the Pride an incredibly tough out and hard for any keeper to handle.

How They Lose: In the three-team race for top spot in the league, it was the Pride who fell short, and the big concern has to be the record against semi-final opponent Buffalo. In the first meeting between the teams this season, Boston emerged victorious, but the Beauts won each of the next three meetings by a combined 14-3 margin. They have had an incredibly tough time solving Shannon Szabados. In fact, the Pride’s lone win against the Beauts came with Nicole Hensley between the pipes.

BUFFALO BEAUTS (2)
11-4-1 — 23 pts.

Player To Watch: Sometimes the easy choice is the right choice, which is why Shannon Szabados is worth keeping an eye on during Buffalo’s post-season run. While Hayley Scamurra’s offensive ability has difference-making potential, it’s more likely that goaltending is what gets the job done for the Beauts, particularly with the one-off nature of the NWHL post-season. Szabados’ regular season numbers — .934 SP, 1.49 GAA — were spectacular, bested only by crease-mate Nicole Hensley, and narrowly at that (.935 SP, 1.50 GAA). Szabados also knows all about playing under pressure, and that experience can go a long way.

How They Win: Goaltending should be enough to put the Beauts in position to win games, but pushing them over the top will be the offense. No team in the NWHL scored more goals this season than the Beauts, who put up 57 tallies in 16 games and boasted a league-best plus-32 goal differential. The attack, led by league scoring leader Scamurra, is also boosted by goal-scoring champion Maddie Elia, whose 12 tallies put her two clear of the next-best lamp lighter. So, while it’s goaltending that will keep the Beauts in games and set the stage for them to be victorious, it’s the offense that puts them over the top.

How They Lose: No team is infallible and the game isn’t played on paper. Heading into the final weekend of the season, few would have expected the Beauts to drop their season-ending match against the Riveters, yet that’s exactly what happened, as the Metropolitan group stunned Buffalo in a shootout. It was only the third time all season the Beauts have allowed three or more goals against. One of those games? A mid-November 4-1 loss to Boston, who Buffalo will get in the semi-final. One mediocre performance and Buffalo is heading home empty-handed.

MINNESOTA WHITECAPS (1)
12-4-0 — 24 pts.

Player To Watch: It seemed at some point that NWHL rookie Jonna Curtis, who wasn’t even sure she was going to play this season before Minnesota’s addition to the league was announced, was destined to slow down. Instead, she wound up challenging for the league scoring crown by posting 19 points in 16 contests. Much of the attention is going to be on the Olympic talent — Hannah Brandt, Kendall Coyne, Lee Stecklein — but Curtis has shown time and again that’s she no slouch in the point-producing department. Her eight goals were the most of any Whitecap this season and tied for fifth-most in the NWHL.

How They Win: No attack in the NWHL was deeper than that of the Whitecaps. Altogether, Minnesota had eight players break the 10-point plateau across the league’s 16-game season. Curtis’ 19 points led the way, but that every single one of the Whitecaps’ lines can hurt the opposition is what made the team so lethal all season. Not only that, but it could be argued that blueliner Stecklein is the best defender in the NWHL. Minnesota has excelled in every facet of the game this season, and it’s the well-rounded nature of the group that has made them the top seed.

How They Lose: They say there are no guarantees beyond death and taxes, so we’ll stop short of suggesting the Whitecaps are bound to beat the winner of the play-in game and advance to the Isobel Cup final. What we will say, though, is that the toughest draw for Minnesota might be Boston, against whom the Whitecaps won only one of four games this season. Minnesota has a stacked group, from Olympic caliber talent to surprising stars and top-tier goaltending from Amanda Leveille. Nothing is going to come easy, but the team with the best chance at taking home the top prize is the league-leading Whitecaps.

The Hockey News’ Prediction:

Play-In Game: Riveters defeat Whale
Semi-Finals: Beauts defeat Pride; Whitecaps defeat Riveters
Final: Whitecaps defeat Beauts

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