The NWHL season was originally planned to be a shortened one within a bubble in Lake Placid. Scheduled to run from Jan. 23 - Feb. 5, the league had to postpone its playoffs due to a COVID outbreak.
This weekend, four semifinalists will return to action, hoping to complete the season and award the Isobel Cup. Taking place in Boston this time, the Toronto Six will face the Boston Pride and the Connecticut Whale will face the Minnesota Whitecaps on Friday night in a one-game playoff format. The winners of each game will faceoff on Saturday night for the championship.
Marisa Ingemi previews Friday's games:
— NWHL (@NWHL) March 25, 2021
Boston Pride vs. Toronto Six
The Pride and Six have met just one time, at Lake Placid a couple of months ago. Toronto earned its first win in franchise history, a 2-1 come from behind victory.
Key matchup: Pride defence vs. Mikyla Grant-Mentis
The Six forward emerged as one of the best players in the league during Lake Placid, beating goalies with her tremendous shot and skating around defenders with ease.
The Pride have a veteran defence, headed by Kaleigh Fratkin and Lauren Kelly, who won’t make it easy for the second-year forward.
Players to watch: McKenna Brand (BOS), Lindsay Eastwood (TOR)
If Brand gets going for the Pride it’s good night to everyone else. One of the true elite scorers in the game, Brand snapped off seven points at Lake Placid, but most came late. If she is top of her game at the start, in a line with Jillian Dempsey and Cristina Putigna, there’s no slowing them down.
On the complete opposite end there’s Lindsay Eastwood, the defender who scored the first goal in Six franchise history. She pushes the play in all three zones and has the potential to emerge as one of the best shutdown defenders in the league. Team Canada should keep an eye on her.
What they’re saying
“You watch our Toronto game then our last two games with Buffalo and it’s like an entirely different team. It’s one of those things where we had so much hockey in the first five or six days, then four in the first five we had our backs against the wall. That’s when we play our best hockey.” - Pride head coach Paul Mara.
How Boston wins
If the Pride jump out to a lead, they can’t just sit on it. Boston wins games when they crush the spirit of their opponents and extend leads late. They blew four 1-0 leads in Lake Placid and paid for it, not starting to win contests until they piled on.
Toronto won’t make it easy on them, but the Pride have to jump out to a multi-goal lead if they want to take down the Six.
How Toronto wins
The Six are high energy. They win games by imposing their will on others early and often. Sound familiar?
Toronto accomplishes similar things to Boston while playing a different style entirely. They push so much energy all the time, if they were to get a couple of quick ones, that momentum may be too much. If Boston takes a quick lead, responding in turn -- especially late in a period -- and not allowing the Pride space to dominate is the key.
Minnesota Whitecaps vs. Connecticut Whale
Though they didn’t meet at Lake Placid, the Whitecaps beat the Whale seven times in the 2019-20 season, not allowing Connecticut a single victory.
Key matchup: Shannon Doyle against the Whitecaps offence
It’s likely the end of Doyle’s prolific career in the NWHL, so she’s going to have a lot of energy. She’s a shot blocking machine on the underrated Whale defence, and the key to stopping the Whitecaps is not letting them accumulate looks on net on rookie goalie Abbie Ives.
Players to watch: Melissa Samoskevich (CON), Allie Thunstrom (MIN)
Samoskevich is making her league debt after being the second overall selection in the 2018 draft. She hasn’t had a ton of time to assimilate into the Whale lineup since she didn’t play in Lake Placid, but her offensive ability can be a game changer.
Thunstrom didn’t light the world on fire in Lake Placid, and there’s not a ton of time in these playoffs, but she feels due. Last year’s co-league MVP is the fastest player in the league and a matchup nightmare every time she’s on the ice.
What they’re saying
“We have a nice balance of rookies and veterans. We haven’t had that in a while. We also have consistency behind the bench with Colton (Orr) and Lauren (Brennan) and we have wonderful leadership.” - Shannon Doyle
How Minnesota wins
Whitecaps goalies Amanda Leveille can shut the door on the best scoring teams, and the Whale are still a young group coming together on offence. If Leveille is on, that might frustrate the less experienced Connecticut forward corps.
Rookie defender Maddie Rowe was blocking shots left and right the first time around. A strong defensive effort in front of Leveille will give her some breathing room, too.
How Connecticut wins
The Whale are young and hungry and Minnesota is coming from a lot further away. If the Whale jump out with a couple quick goals early and have a fast start, they might put Minnesota too far behind. They’ve been looking to be in this position for a long time and are too talented this time around to squander it.