NWHL Notebook: Emily Fluke’s revenge, Whitecaps defence comes up big

NWHL writer for Sportsnet Marisa Ingemi joined Tara Slone on Top Of HER Game to discuss the history of the NWHL, the growth of women’s hockey and the 2021 NWHL season in Lake Placid, NY.

The Boston Pride have dubbed 2021 as their revenge tour.

Missing the Isobel Cup on home ice due to the pandemic, their entire narrative is taking it back and winning anyways.

For one former Pride skater, she’s on a revenge tour of her own.

Emily Fluke played last season, her third in the NWHL, with her hometown Pride where she put up a career-high 27 points.

She was stunned when the team chose to not bring her back in 2021.

“I’m comfortable not sugar-coating it,” said Fluke. “It wasn’t my decision to not go back to the Pride. I was a little surprised. We went 23-1, I felt like I had a strong season, I was the fourth leading scorer, so I was surprised by the decision and a little disappointed how it was handled.”

Fluke, who grew up in Bourne, Massachusetts and attended Middlebury College, began her career with the Connecticut Whale. Her addition to an already star-studded Boston lineup elevated her game to the next level.

When the Toronto Six came calling, it was a no-brainer to be a part of their new operation.

“(Toronto head coach Digit Murphy) has been around the game for a long time, so I think at some point everyone has crossed paths with her,” said Fluke. “She’s all about women’s sports, just women’s empowerment in general and she has so much energy. She wants the game to grow.”

The majority of the Six roster is Canadian, but many haven’t played a ton of NWHL action. For most of the roster, this is their first season, aside from former Connecticut defender Emma Greco, former Connecticut forward Shiann Darkangelo, and former Buffalo forward Mikyla Grant-Mentis.

Fluke, though, has by far the most experience in this league. She’s taken on a leadership role because of it, flanking the fourth line on their right wing alongside CWHL veteran Julie Allen and rookie Taytum Clairmont.

That for sure went into Toronto’s decision to sign Fluke, and it’s a role the fourth-year player is happy with.

“We have a good mix of veterans and a good mix of people right out of school,” she said. “I think that balances out nicely. Whether it’s the NWHL or CWHL or leagues in Europe, just having pro experience is really helpful…. It’s good to have all of those perspectives.”

Fluke said she didn’t consider the PWHPA or going overseas when she learned the Pride wouldn’t be retaining her, citing a belief in the NWHL as a motivation to remain a part of it.

That belief has been rewarded with the opportunity to be a part of history, not only in the bubble, but with a new franchise. Fluke doesn’t take it lightly.

She also isn’t backing down from her own revenge tour when the Six face her former club on Tuesday night for the first time ever.

“Every game is going to feel like a playoff game with a condensed schedule,” she said. “But that one is certainly going to have more weight. Circle it on your calendars.”

Whitecaps defence earns big minutes

The Minnesota Whitecaps looked beaten down early on Sunday following their gruelling 2-1 win over Boston the night before, but the defence stepped up late to hold Toronto down in the 6-5 shootout win.

Much of that can be credited to late addition Sydney Baldwin, who played over 28 minutes, but also rookie Maddie Rowe who played 25 minutes.

Rowe, a Wisconsin graduate, has seen more time than projected so far on the Minnesota blue line. She’s made the most of that.

Rowe leads the league with 10 blocked shots on a team that’s solidifying an identity on making it tough to get shots through. Goalie Amanda Leveille made 66 saves this weekend, but opponents have taken a lot more attempts than that.

Minnesota hasn’t held its rookies back; Haley Mack scored the shootout winner and her first career goal against Toronto as well, as her and Rowe have been highlights for the undefeated squad.

Toronto finds footing

The first ever Toronto Six contest was perhaps anti-climactic.

Their second was anything but.

Toronto surged ahead to 3-0 and 5-1 leads before the Whitecaps stormed back and took it in a shootout.

It’s a heartbreaking way to lose a game, but the Six are taking it in stride. They earned their first point, scored their first franchise goal, and are happy to put firsts behind them — except for their impending first win.

“It’s not about winning the first game,” said Six head coach Digit Murphy. “It’s about winning the last game.”

That Toronto can put up five goals on Leveille – albeit, not a well-rested Leveille — should spark some excitement in what their offence can do.

Defender Lindsay Eastwood tallied the first goal in franchise history, but it’ll be forwards like Grant-Mentis and Darkangelo who will lead the way.

“We can’t take any game lightly, we just have to focus on our strengths, come out hard, do the simple things, get pucks on net, get more quality shots and chances to actually test these goalies,” said Darkangelo. “I think that will be huge.”

The Six peppered Minnesota with 40 shots. They have the output — and talent — to challenge opposing teams. They certainly didn’t make life any easier for the Whitecaps, who are one of the best teams in the league, if not the best.

Breanne Wilson-Bennett, oft-overlooked with the CWHL players on the roster and all the rookies, made her mark with two goals against the Whitecaps as well. Their offensive options are only going to shine through more and more as the season goes on.

Toronto faces Boston on Tuesday where it will be a similar challenge, but now with two games under their belts.

Unsung Riveters forwards carrying pace

Day 1 highlighted Kelly Babstock’s return and Rebecca Russo has been, well, Rebecca Russo in her two games back for the Riveters, but it’s the entire offensive unit that’s stood out.

Mallory Rushton ended last season looking like an emerging star and had another stellar performance against the Whale on Sunday.

She tallied for the Rivs as part of the 4-3 victory, where she joined her teammates with her first goal of the shortened season.

Theresa Knutson scored against the Beauts on Saturday as well to hit the scoreboard for the first time. The Riveters’ best players have been their best players — Cailey Hutchsion has already found the stat sheet as well with a goal — but one of the reasons the Riveters have been a dark horse pick leading into the season is the sheer amount of scoring potential they have.

Against the Beauts it was defender Leila Kilduff who scored twice, but the Riveters success is going to come from their forward depth.

It’s not just on the scoring end, either; high profile rookie Paige Voight hasn’t scored yet, but has found ways to contribute on defence. They’re six-for-six on the penalty kill, an impressive feat with the onslaughts they’ve faced in two days.

At the end of the game Sunday, the Whale were never able to pull goalie Brooke Wolejko because the Rivs didn’t give them a chance to enter their offensive zone. That’s mighty impressive at the end of a game on that was the second contest of a back-to-back.

That speaks to the kind of depth the Riveters could only have dreamed about a year ago.

Revenge tours galore

The bubble seems filled with revenge tours; Boston against everyone, everyone against Boston, the usual.

One that might be going overlooked — and taking place Tuesday — is Minnesota and Metropolitan.

The two face off in an already much-hyped battle of the undefeateds. It has a little extra meaning for Riveters forward Emily Janiga.

Janiga was a member of the Beauts who fell to the Whitecaps in the Isobel Cup in 2019. That’s not the kind of heartbreak that ever just goes away.

Buffalo has made an appearance in every Isobel Cup game to ever be played. Janiga spent her entire NWHL career with the Beauts before joining the Riveters this season.

Her fight with the Caps might not be the Riveters’, but it adds another spicy element to an already incredible matchup.

Jenna Rheault out

The Pride sustained a tough blow on Sunday with the loss of second-year defender Jenna Rheault.

Rheault took a puck to the wrist in the first period and came out of the game and didn’t return. Sources told Sportsnet after the game she broke her wrist, and Rheault tweeted on Monday morning she would miss the rest of the bubble season.

It’s likely Briana Mastel, who started most of last season for the Pride, will slide into her spot in the lineup while the rest of the defence remains the same.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.