The NWHL’s Four Nations Cup break presents us with an opportunity to take a look at some early trends this season. The first month provided quite a few interesting storylines, including some that are all too familiar to fans of the New York Riveters and Buffalo Beauts.
The Beauts and the Boston Pride have each played four games in the first three weeks of the 2016-17. While the Riveters and Connecticut Whale have played just three games. Three or four games isn’t a large sample size to work with, but it does provide us with a snapshot of each team’s start to the season.
It also reflects almost 15 percent of the NWHL season.
New York Riveters
Chad Wiseman’s team desperately needs to get more shots on net and find a way to get out of their own zone. The hope for the Riveters’ possession woes turning around with the addition of speedy forwards and puck-moving defenders has fizzled. The Riveters have scored six goals and allowed 15 in their first three games.
Madison Packer’s 14 shots leads her team by a significant margin, but she has yet to score this season. The goals should start to come for Packer, especially if she stays parked in front of the net once Amanda Kessel returns. Bray Ketchum’s quiet start has been a surprise. She led the team in shooting last season but has just five shots before the break.
Packer isn’t the only Riveter having a hard time getting pucks in the net. Opposing goaltenders have averaged a .920 save percentage in three games against the Riveters. It seems like the Riveters are struggling to generate both shots and quality scoring chances. But that is hard to do for a team that plays so much in their own zone. It doesn’t help that the Riveters have already played Boston twice, but they need to be better.
The Beauts averaged even fewer shots on net than the Riveters in the first month of the season. They also averaged an alarming minus-10 shot differential. But, unlike the Riveters, Buffalo has been buoyed by the best special teams play in the league. Their three power play goals have helped to conceal their shortcomings at even strength. So far Buffalo has scored eight goals at even strength while they have allowed 14.
Kelley Steadman has played in two of Buffalo’s four games but she has already scored four goals. Clearly, the Beauts are a different team with her in the lineup. Former Whale winger Shiann Darkangelo ranks second on the team with 4.5 shots per game and looks ready to flourish playing a bigger role in Buffalo.
Former Whale wing Shiann Darkangelo ranks second on the team with 4.5 shots per game and looks ready to flourish playing a bigger role in Buffalo.
Emily Pfalzer and Megan Bozek led all NWHL defenders in shooting last season. This year Bozek is off to a solid start with 10 shots, a goal and two assists. But Pfalzer surprisingly has just four shots and an assist (that came on the power play) in four games. Buffalo’s captain needs to shoot more.
The Beauts need to find a way to play better hockey at even strength. They can’t continue to lean on their goaltending and special teams play to win them hockey games. But it’s important to note that they have had an even tougher schedule than the Riveters have had. It will be interesting to see what happens when New York state’s two NWHL teams meet two times on the weekend of November 12th.
The Connecticut Whale have a 17.0 team shooting percentage in three games this season. Connecticut’s recipe of “run-and-gun” hockey with the assault led by their top line has given the team a 2-1 start to the season. But it probably isn’t sustainable. Haley Skarupa is an incredible hockey player, but she’s not going to keep up a 35.0 shooting percentage.
Aren’t small sample sizes fun?
The Whale have four different players with five or more points in three games, which is the most in the league. Unsurprisingly three of those players are on Connecticut’s red-hot top line. Skarupa and Kelli Stack together have 24 of the team’s 88 shots. They have helped the Whale have as many even strength goals as the Pride have scored this season despite playing one less game.
What’s interesting is just how close the Whale’s games have been so far. Their two victories were won by two-goal margins (the latter of which was achieved with an empty net goal) and they lost their game to Buffalo on October 9 by a single goal. Connecticut’s offense has exceeded everyone’s expectations, but what will the Whale look like if (or when) their top line comes back down to Earth?
Boston has been absolutely dominant even with Hilary Knight out of the lineup in its first four games of the season. They have averaged nearly a plus-16 shot differential in four games. Without Knight, the Pride are still averaging nearly 35 shots a game. There’s no stopping this team.
What might be scariest about Boston is how much offense it generates despite having an underwhelming power play. But the Pride didn’t need their power play to generate scoring chances last year. It looks like that will also be true this season.
Co-captain Brianna Decker has a team and league-leading six shots per game. But Boston has never been about one or two great players carrying the team. Their forward depth is unrivaled, their blue line is stacked and they regularly suffocate their opponents in possession at even strength. Behind all of that chemistry and depth are goaltenders Brittany Ott and Lauren Slebodnick who have a combined .921 save percentage.
It’s no wonder that the Pride went 4-0 before the Four Nations Cup break. They will meet the Whale for the first time this season in Boston on November 12.