In a fairytale ending to the regular season, the New York Riveters toppled the mighty Pride at home in the Hockey House. Boston came into Sunday’s contest 16-0, having not lost a game since January 3, 2016, and left with, well, perhaps a little less Pride. Not only did they lose, they never even led, testament to how far the Rivs have come this year — and to what they might still accomplish.
The upset seemed to be in the cards, considering that it almost happened last week, when they lost to Boston 4-3 after being ahead 2-0. The fact that New York was short both captain Ashley Johnston and alternate captain/puck provocateur Madison Packer and still almost pulled it off bode well for the rematch.
Watching teams play the Pride, it’s usually pretty clear which side of the ice the USWNT is skating on. That wasn’t nearly as apparent on Sunday, when players like Milica McMillen (who played for Team USA U18 back in 2011) and undrafted dynamo Rebecca Russo looked right at home against their Olympic counterparts — part of why we saw a lot of action, but the period ended 0-0.
The Riveters made up for a scoreless first frame by hitting twine twice in less than half a minute of the second. Janine Weber struck first, an unassisted effort that flummoxed Boston’s Brittany Ott. Then Russo threaded a hell of a pass to McMillen in the slot, making it 2-0. The Pride answered on the power play, with Hilary Knight behind the net setting up an unstoppable shot for Brianna Decker: 2-1.
Pride coach Bobby Jay must give a hell of a pep talk, because his team came out roaring in the 3rd. Duggan tied it early when a puck Katie Fitzgerald thought she’d stopped snuck out behind her; hey, it happens. Fortunately, Fitzy didn’t let it happen again, and this time, Jay’s pep talk, if there was one, wasn’t enough.
I still remember the aftermath of last season’s first Riveters/Pride game, back in October of 2016. Aviator was packed, the score was ridiculous (8-1), and the refs were a little hazy about the rules for professional women’s hockey. It wasn’t a melee (that came later, against the Whale), but it was close. I’m not sure who Knighter called seconds after stepping off the ice that night, but she was NOT happy, with good reason: the game had been unsafe.
While the NWHL has made some pretty major missteps, we rarely see physicality getting out of control. Instead, we see good hockey. This matchup got physical, especially in the crease, but never in a way that made me fear for the players’ safety. Macmillan tossed Decker, earning a headlock from Knight. Packer outright tackled somebody (in the scrum it was hard to tell), and at one point Ott actually yanked Packer’s jersey over her head.
Yet it was Packer who put away the game-winner, a power play goal (her 4th of the year) from a near-impossible angle. After that, the Riveters simply had to skate, stay out of the box, and rely on the unprecedented amazingness of Fitzgerald, who withstood a fusillade from the Pride in the final minutes — part of why the NWHL recently named her Goalie of the Year.
Yet Fitzgerald is also perhaps the best example of a player finding new levels of skill after her hockey days were supposedly over. It’s thrilling to watch Amanda Kessel rack up points in every game; you can SEE the patterns and possibilities an exceptional player like her creates. However, it’s a different kind of thrill to watch a third string walk-on goaltender block shot after shot from players who never even heard of her until this year — another reason to hope the league can make it work when the USWNT leaves for the Olympics in 2018.
The Isobel Cup finals start Friday, when the Riveters face the Buffalo Beauts at home (and fans face the wasted St. Patrick’s Day revelers on New Jersey Transit). There’s every reason to believe they’ll make it to the final; The Hockey Writers’s Dan Rice says they’re going to make it all the way. Regardless, the Riveters have a lot to be proud of this season. The Bad News Bears of the NWHL have become a very legitimate threat to what may well be a gold medal Olympic team (minus #BestKessel, of course). And I may owe Chad Wiseman a beer.