The Riveters’ 6-5 OT win over the Connecticut Whale was everything you want in a hockey game, if you enjoy having your heart in your mouth, your hands in the air, and, for four bad opening minutes, possibly, your lunch in your lap. I hadn’t been to Newark in a while, so when the game veered from garbage fire to Rocky-style triumph, I wondered if it was me.
It wasn’t. It was the Riveters. Damn, I love this team. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Remember the lunch in the lap? That’s what I was afraid of when the Whale scored three — yes, THREE — goals in the first THREE minutes of the first period. All of a sudden, I was back at Aviator on Opening Day, watching them lose 8-1 to the Pride — and hell, even the Pride took more than 3 minutes to score 3 goals. Unfortunately, Zoe Hickel scored on her first shot and first shift as a fishie (she was formerly with the Pride), followed by Kelly Babstock and Kelli Stack. Then Hickel got another for good measure. 4-0 Whale.
However, the Riveters very soon showed me that they were not the same team who had their asses handed to them in their own barn on opening day, 2015. Instead, they were the team whose players are second in the league in points, assists, and short-handed goals. It seems fitting that the player to remind me who Riveters are now was Janine Weber.
Last season, I watched Weber chase countless dumped pucks as her gassed teammates changed lines and tried to keep up. No longer. Weber’s short-handed goal put the Rivs on the board going into the second period, 4-1. It may not have looked like a turnaround, especially when Captain Stack scored her second 6 minutes in, making it 5-1. But that was the last time the Whale touched twine, as the Riveters scored 5 in a row to pick up the win — their third in a row, which is a team record.
How? It’s hard to see Amanda Kessel as a grinder, but when they click, the Riveters play a pretty perfect combination of blue collar #grit and elite finesse. Madison Packer’s perfect power play snipe left the second frame at 5-2, and then the third belonged to the home team. Weber scored again, followed by Michele Picard and the crazy-fast Miye D’Oench, who deflected the Rivs’ 5th to tie it up.
The OT game winner came on a power play blast from rookie defender Courtney Burke, who has 9 points in 11 games. Burke was set up by Kessel, who picked up another 4 primary assists, making 13 points total in her last 5 games. In spite of the Whale’s early surge, there was little doubt who was going to bring home the win. Weber absolutely battered Whale net minder Nicole Stock throughout the final minutes. In that last power play, the Riveters looked like a team that could beat anyone.
Yes, anyone. Even the Pride, who they will play twice after a two week break that, right now, they don’t want — not with this momentum.
“We really don’t want this break,” confirmed coach Chad Wiseman, who, when asked, essentially said he’d trusted his team to pull themselves out of that 4-0 hole with what he described as “a gritty character win.” He sees the upcoming matches with the Pride as a “mini-playoff series” for which the players are ready, although “we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Captain Ashley Johnston, recently profiled here, agreed. She confessed to acquiring “maybe 20 more gray hairs” during the win, but concurred with Chad that the team is ready: “This is a time to show whether we’re a good team or a great team.” Asked how they pulled themselves out of that deep first period ditch, Johnston cited team cohesion. “Everyone was focusing on what they could do, owning their role ... the greatest asset of this team is that we all own our roles at this point.”
Of course, it’s not a Whale-Rivs game without a few words — and crosschecks — exchanged. I asked Johnston if playing the notoriously-chippy Whale involved a special mindset, and she agreed. “At one point there I thought I was going to break my stick against the boards, but Kiira (Dosdall) reached over and said, we got it, we got it.” Still, there was blood on the ice at the end of the game, after Meagan Mangene of the Whale got injured and required EMT assistance. (We’re still waiting for an update on her condition.)
This year’s Isobel Cup will be single-elimination. If anyone can take down the undefeated Pride, it’s the Riveters — but the ones who battered the crap out of the Whale in that final perfect power play, not the ones who fell in the ditch that made it necessary. Anything less simply won’t do the job that last year’s last-place finishers want so badly to do.