The Riveters took on the undefeated Connecticut Whale at home on Sunday. (Remember Sunday? Yes, it is now Thursday. Let's just say I needed four days to recover from this game, and leave it at that.) The odds seemed in their favor; the Whale were short one captain, forward Jessica Koizumi, and one defender, Molly Engstrom, who earned the NWHL's first suspension for her inexplicable decision to pummel the crap out of Meghan Duggan right in front of a ref last weekend up in Buffalo. It's worth a watch.
So yes, the stage seemed set for a Riveters victory, and the crowd, by far the biggest since the home opener, were more than ready for another win. And when that puck dropped, it looked like the team was determined to provide it. The Riveters took the first shot, a drive from Janine Weber on a perfect clear from Ashley Johnston. That was just the beginning. The team with the fewest goals in the NWHL suddenly looked like they wanted to double their numbers in one night. They let loose an absolute assault on Whale netminder Jaime Leonoff, including a breakaway by an almost-airborne Morgan Fritz-Ward, a gorgeous dangle by Brooke Ammerman, and multiple chances from Lyudmila Belyakova.
Belyakova, who has yet to score, looked lethal all night, leading several odd-man rushes and hammering relentlessly at loose pucks in front of the net. Janine Weber kept the pressure on as well. It was Weber who managed to ward off four Whales to maintain possession during a change, then come around the net and send a beautiful feed to Bray Ketchum in front. 1-0 Riveters.
The Riveters defense rose to the occasion. Kira Dodsall and "Syd the Kidd" kept the Whale to the outside, and Kidd lifted the stick of Kelly Babstock just as she was about to sneak the puck in behind Jenny Scrivens after a perfect cross from Kate Buesser. Scrivens, again, had a near-miraculous game, considering it was only her second time in net since 2009. The Whale's power play has a 34% success rate, with the Riveters at a measly 7%, but it was the Rivs who made it work in the first with a goal from Fritz-Ward, after Alyssa Wohlfeiler went off for bodychecking Packer. 2-0. (Packer was not pleased. Let's call that "foreshadowing," ok?)
During the period break, the Whale's alternate captain Kaleigh Fratkin spoke with Chelsea Laden about her team's performance - or lack thereof. She rubbed the sweat from her eyes and blamed the Riveters' fierce forecheck for the Whale's lack of chances. "They're always all over us," she admitted, but stated that her squad would eventually capitalize.
At the beginning of the second, it looked like the Whale might try to play the Pride's game, cycling endlessly in the O-Zone to wear the Riveters out and then taking possession during the change. But the Riveters were having none of it. They continued to use their speed, taking shots on odd-man rushes and scrapping it out for the rebounds. Eventually, Ketchum brought it down the right side, gracefully slid the puck from her backhand to her forehand, and roofed it over Leonoff's shoulder, giving the Rivs their biggest lead so far this season. 3-0.
The game was far from in the bag, but it was definitely on the checkout line. The Whale had a 4 on 1 chance, but with great defense from Elena Orlando they just took too long to pull the trigger, and Scrivens made a gorgeous diving save. Ketchum, with a steal and a breakaway, seemed to be headed for a hat trick but was robbed by Leonoff. Packer and Belyakova continued to get good looks but just couldn't send them home.
Then the tide turned. Johnston was called for a dubious trip in the last seconds of the second, and the usually even-keeled captain made her displeasure clear to the refs and everyone else in earshot. In the few remaining seconds, Brooke Ammerman blocked a shot from the point with her hand, then dropped her stick and skated for the bench.
That, my friends, is where it all went wrong. Ammerman never returned to the game. Johnston returned to the box to start the third. And then, almost six minutes in to the final period, Katia Smolentseva broke the seal for the Whale with a beautiful low shot: 3-1. It looked like a penalty on Orlando might make it 3-2, but Scrivens stood on her head and made a stellar set of saves.
The Whale continued to dominate, but it wasn't until they pulled Leonoff with two minutes left that things started to look downright frightening. Babstock scored just seconds later with 1:44 left ... and then it happened. Remember that hit on Packer back in the 1st? Well, Packer did. When a scrum broke out in front of Scrivens and Wohlfeiler knocked down Gabie Figueroa, Packer returned the favor ... and got called. Making it 6 on 4 (after Leonoff came off). With a minute left.
I believe this is about when I had my aneurysm.
The Riveters held on for 50 seconds, bless them, but then Shiann Darkangelo ... well ... you know. 3-3.
The Riveters deserve credit for bouncing back and getting their share of chances in the 4 on 4. Ashley Johnston was called for a high stick with 17 seconds left. (Come on, she's 6'2''. For her, that's not high stick, it's just "stick.") She came out of the box for the shootout, and then was promptly sent back after the Whale coach threw a hissy fit, even though Johnston was unlikely to shoot unless it went to 5. She skated back, smiling. It was that kind of game.
Perhaps I should preface an account of the shootout by jumping ahead to my conversation with Scrivens after the game.
ME: How long has it been since you were in a shootout?
JS: I don't think I've ever been in a shootout! Does the NCAA even do shootouts?
Yep. Yet another reason, as if we needed one, to love Jenny Scrivens, who stopped 2 out of 3 shots (Kelli Stack snuck one in 5-hole) in her first-ever shootout in her second game in six years in which she made 46 saves, many of them spectacular.
So, somehow the Whale managed to pull out another one, leaving them 8-0. (I'm starting to think it's the socks. Have you seen their socks? They are clearly magic.) I'm sure it has nothing to do with them being clutch as .... as clutch as it is possible to be, what with coming from behind two weeks in a row to remain undefeated, winning their eighth game and third shootout of the season.
As for the Riveters, they are currently 1-1 on their trip to Japan. Nana Fujimoto is recovered and back in the net, which is great news, although goaltending is not the team's problem. (This sounds familiar to me. Not sure why. Hmm.) It's hard to say what their problem is, other than the penalties that ended up making the difference this week. They have come so far in just a few months - unfortunately, so has the rest of the NWHL. In the end, that's the best thing about this league right now. All games are up for grabs. This makes for some tough losses, but also some pretty hot hockey.