The first three weeks of the inaugural NWHL season have come and gone, and early returns are promising. Fans of the sport have been treated to exciting games and experienced the quality of the players, both their talent on the ice and their class off of it, firsthand. Several of these players will be participating in the 4 Nations Cup in Sweden starting on November 4, so the NWHL will be taking a break to accommodate the tournament and will return to action on November 15. During this break in the schedule, teams, fans, and media will have time to reflect on some of the developing stories happening around the league. Now is as good a time as any to catch up on what has been happening around the NWHL in its historic first season, so let's take a look.
Undefeated Boston looks like an offensive juggernaut, tallying 16 goals in their first three games. Brianna Decker leads the league in scoring with five goals, including a hat trick against Buffalo last Sunday in the Pride's 5-3 win. Boston drew plenty of attention prior to the start of the season after several high-profile players signed with the club, such as the aforementioned Decker and fellow U.S. Olympian Hilary Knight. Expectations were high for the team after the roster was finalized, and so far the team has delivered. On paper, the Pride's roster may be the most daunting to go up against given the experience that the players have in international tournaments and the experience they have playing with each other. Decker and Knight were members of the 2015 Clarkson Cup champion Boston Blades of the CWHL, along with current Pride teammates Jordan Smelker, Kacey Bellamy, Jillian Dempsey, Alyssa Gagliardi, and Brittany Ott. Given the new nature of the NWHL, any preexisting chemistry is extremely valuable and this cohesiveness has been paying dividends for Boston. It will be intriguing to see if the team can continue its dominance after the other teams in the league have had time to develop their chemistry and respective systems. There is no doubt that the Pride are a great team, but do not expect them to run the table.
Connecticut is also undefeated, but they have done so thanks to stellar special teams play and the stalwart goaltending the team has had from all three of its netminders thus far. Riveters fans are familiar with the excellent play of the Whale goalies who have surrendered only one goal in each of the two meetings between the teams in the young season. Nicole Stock, Jaimie Leonoff, and Chelsea Laden have all seen action between the pipes for the Whale through their first three contests and the team has yet to allow more than two goals in a game. The team also possesses the best power play and penalty kill in the league, operating at a 31% and a 93% success rate respectively. Defenseman Kaleigh Fratkin has been a force with the man advantage and leads the team in points along with Kelli Stack, both of whom have five through the first three games. When the team returns to action against the Buffalo Beauts on November 15, fans should keep an eye on who gets the nod in net and whether or not the team can rely on their special teams to secure more wins on a regular basis.
While the Connecticut Whale have been feasting on the special teams, the Buffalo Beauts are in the midst of a famine. Buffalo has been promising in their even strength play, but their struggling special teams have contributed to the three losses they have suffered to start the season. The Beauts have been given 15 opportunities on the power play, the most in the league, but have capitalized only once. That translates to a paltry 6% success rate, the lowest in the NWHL and an unacceptable figure at any level of professional hockey. In addition to this, Buffalo has been shorthanded the fewest times of any team with 12 opportunities on the penalty kill but they have surrendered four goals while shorthanded. This 66% penalty kill is also the worst among the Founding Four. The team clearly has the ability to win games, and perhaps the break is exactly what they needed to collect themselves. They will return to action against Connecticut and if they can win the special teams battle against the dominant Whale, then they can win the game. It is only a matter of time for the strong even strength play of the Beauts to get the team in the wins column.
The New York Riveters have also yet to secure a point in the standings, and the season overall has been a roller coaster. A tough but respectable loss to the Whale to start the season was followed up by an embarrassing loss to the Pride in which the team surrendered seven goals, lost their collective temper by taking eight penalties, and overall showed very little effort. The running theme for the Riveters so far has been goal scoring, more specifically, the lack thereof. The team has scored once in all three games, in addition to two disallowed goals. Your goalie needs to be perfect if you are only scoring one goal per game, but Nana Fujimoto got off to a slow start in net for the Riveters and the team finds itself winless at the break. However, the Riveters looked like a whole new team in their last game against Connecticut. Fujimoto was brilliant, the offense was generating quality chances against the stellar Whale defense and goalie, and the team was taking fewer trips to the penalty box. It was a winnable game where the bounces just did not go the way of the Riveters. New York is perhaps the team most dependent on their system to get them wins, playing a grinding style with clearly defined roles for players on a roster with fewer Olympians and superstars than the other three teams. The early hiccups are symptoms of shaking off the cobwebs, and the team seems to be settling into their system and coming together as a unit. New York's first game back will be against the Pride back in Brooklyn. Given the rivalry between the two cities and the result of their last meeting, this game is one that you cannot miss.
Well there you have it, your quick recap of emerging stories to keep track of when the NWHL returns on November 15. Be sure to keep an eye on the NWHL players in the 4 Nations Cup. The league may be on break, but Blueshirt Banter coverage of the Riveters is not! Player interviews, system analysis, and developing stories are on the docket in the upcoming days. Thanks for reading.