Watching the Riveters this first NWHL season has been a study in contrasts. We have seen a team stacked with gifted stickhandlers and amazing skaters who forecheck relentlessly and create sensational chances. But we have also seen a team that cannot pass tape to tape on the transition or clear the puck from their zone. Both teams were present at Sunday's game against the Buffalo Beauts; unfortunately, the second one stole the show (and a win) from the first, and the Riveters finished the season in fourth and last place.
There's one unfortunate increasingly-obvious solution, but first the recap.
Nana Fujimoto played a ridiculously good game against the same Buffalo team in Brooklyn last weekend, and the ice is always even - at least for starters - when she's between the pipes. The first period was back and forth; some nice puck movement from the Rivs in the offensive zone, a couple of bad clears, and then a power play when Megan Bozek checked Morgan Fritz Ward from behind, sending her off for the rest of the game.
Drastic events like that have rocked the Riveters' boat in the past, but they kept the pressure on, with a phenomenal 2 on 1 chance from Janine Weber and Brooke Ammerman that dinged off the crossbar. (Fritz Ward never returned. She was seen walking and talking after the injury, but there's been no news on her status.) Bozek was the first to score with 6:46 left in the first. However, Bray Ketchum answered back early in the second with an exquisite move on her penalty shot after getting hooked on a breakaway, again by Bozek.
The Riveters defense stood out in this period, with tough pressure from Sydney "the Kid" Kidd and Kiira Dosdall. Gabie Figueroa had a steal so slick it earned cheers even in Buffalo's barn, and Captain Ashley "Stretch" Johnson deftly broke up a run from Kelley Steadman. But it wasn't enough to stop Meghan Duggan during a 4 on 4, with Devon Skeats and Bray Ketchum off for unsportsmanlike conduct. Duggan fought through the Rivs' blue liners and snuck the puck past Fujimoto.
2-1 Buffalo, but the Rivs were still very much in the game. Beth Hanrahan was called for slashing, sending the Rivs to a successful PK, followed by some quality chances for Brooke Ammerman, Janine Weber, Madison Packer, and Meghan Fardelmann. In previous meetups, the Buffalo defense has pushed the Riveters out to the boards, but on Sunday they managed to cause lots of trouble in front of the net. Weber, especially, seemed snakebitten; she was dogged in her pursuit and possession of the puck but just couldn't score. At the end of the second frame,, shots were even at 15 apiece.
Then came the third period, which has become a real problem for a team that, for whatever reason, has a tough time playing 60 minutes of consistent hockey. Early in the third the Riveters were back in the bad place, run ragged up and down the ice when not pinned in their own zone. They simply couldn't make anything happen. It wasn't long until Tatiana Rafter backhanded a bad rebound top shelf. Nana made a crazy save on a tip-in from Skeats off a patented blast from Bozek; unfortunately, she slid into a split too soon to stop Kourtney Kunichika's chip from in front. 4-1 Buffalo.
And that was it. Johnston had a good look after the Riveters pulled Nana for the extra man, but the game was over even before Kelley Steadman sank it in the empty net. It was a sad ending to the game and the Riveters' regular season. They will take on the top-seeded Boston Pride in the first round of the playoffs. I will be delighted if they prove me wrong, but I think they are going to lose. And I don't think it's their fault.
It's not easy to criticize the choices made by a newborn league. However, at this point in the season, it is possible to call on them to do better next year. When a bunch of quality pieces don't make a good machine, the problem probably lies in the design. It may be time to say goodbye to Chad Wiseman and find a new head coach for the Riveters, a talented team with loads of heart who have earned - and deserve - more success.