I still can’t quite believe it.
Last night, a revamped New York Riveters not only won their first preseason game — they dominated, from start to finish. It’s not like they were playing the Hoboken Artichokes, either. The squad they skated circles around for most of 60 minutes was Team Russia.
Yes, THAT Russia. The really big country that kind of likes hockey. The Riveters beat them. Just sit with that for a minute.
And then get past it, kind of like Amanda Kessel did the entire Russian defense last night. Because this is a mostly-new team and a whole new season, and these Riveters are in it to win it. All of it. And from the looks of things, they just might do it.
While last year’s Riveters spent most of the season pinned in their own end, this year’s version controlled possession with near-impenetrable defense, relentless forechecking, freaking magnificent puck-handling, and crazy speed on both ends. Former Buffalo Beaut Tatiana Rafter skates like she was shot out of a cannon, and Kessel, to quote alternate captain Madison Packer, “has rockets on the back of her skates.” (Her power play goal at the beginning of the second frame was so damn fast, I’m sorry to say I missed it.) NWHL rookies Rebecca Russo and Miye D’Oench became quick fan favorites: Russo for speed, scrappiness, and puck handling, and D’Oench for her amazing hands. Her goal, a filthy shot after a perfect dangle, came under pressure, but D’Oench looked like she had all the time in the world.
Were it not for the Olympic-level effort of Russian goaltender Maria Sorokina, the 2-1 game would have been a blowout. The Riveters never let up, with the D putting crisp, hard passes right on the forwards’ sticks. Zone exits will not be a problem for this team; even in their first effort together, their breakouts and neutral zone play looked organized and near-effortless. Riveters goalie Sojung Shin showed a quick glove and a strong presence in the crease.
As it exciting as it was to see the new kids show their stuff, fans also had the pleasure of seeing returning Riveters captain Ashley Johnston, Madison Packer, Kiira Dosdall, Morgan Fritz-Ward, Bray Ketchum, Taylor Holze, and Gabie Figueroa play the way they were meant to. Next to nothing gets past Johnston, who has the wingspan of a condor. Russia is a chippy team, and Packer’s physical play left her pasted to the boards a couple times, but she drew the penalties and kept on going. Most fun may have been Dosdall’s late alley-oop to Fritz-Ward, who almost made it count.
After seeing such a turnaround on the ice, it was striking to talk to both coach and team and hear them emphasizing not their success, but the work that lies ahead. As head coach and GM Chad Wiseman put it, “We didn’t win a regular season game yet. We’ve got a great group right now, we’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of speed up front, but they’ve still got to come together as a unit.”
It was also surprising to learn that, in spite of their grace and skill, many of the new players had been anxious about their NWHL debuts. According to Kessel, “We had a lot of players that were nervous coming from college — different team, different style.” She, like Wiseman, is both pleased and ready for more. “I think we have a long way to go, but I was really happy with where we’re at.”
Asked about what it’s like to be a new (and famous) name on a team in need of elite talent, Kessel was humble, and focused on the fans. “It’s exciting. We had a good amount of people here and you can tell that they’re really into it. That’s part of the reason we play, is for them, so I think that’s awesome.”
Kessel may be the face of the rebuilt Riveters, but for many returning fans, Johnston represents the heart of the team they love. And she is thrilled to be back. “It was awesome to be playing in this game. Back when I had (hip) surgery, I didn’t know if I was going to be here or not. I had a nice moment during warmups when I was like, ‘This is good. All the hard work paid off.’”
Johnston insists that, in spite of the changes, the new Riveters have the same blue-collar hockey heart as last year’s squad. “We’re building a Riveters hockey name,” she declared. “The type of team that’s going to do the right thing every single time we’re on the ice. No one’s going to want to play us.”
No one may want to play the new Riveters. But with the winning combination of new blood and old heart, the fans are sure as hell going to want to watch.