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Whitecaps are NWHL Regular Season Champions

A 4-1 win over the Connecticut Whale earns the Minnesota Whitecaps first place for the NWHL regular season and clinch the 1st seed for playoffs.

Whitecap Hannah Brandt (#20) and Whale Kaycie Anderson (#9) jostling for position on the ice. Cat Lenander

Sunday afternoon the Connecticut Whale hosted the Minnesota Whitecaps for their final game of the season at the Terry Conners Ice Rink in Stamford Connecticut. Minnesota had Amanda Leveille in goal, while Connecticut had their new goaltender, Erin O’Neil between the pipes. O’Neil joined the Whale after Meeri Räisänen had to return to Finland to recover from injury caused when Hannah Brandt crashed into her during the Whitecaps’ final home game of the season on January 20th.

From the start Minnesota was pretty focused on attacking and piling up shots, even though the Whale were a good job clearing them out of their zone. After about five minutes Connecticut was getting some offensive zone time of their own until Emily Fluke took a hooking minor at 6:02. The Whitecaps were puck cycling on the power play and caused a real scramble at the crease before another shot pinged off the crossbar, but O’Neil stopped everything thrown at her. Just after the Whale returned to full strength Emma Stauber tackled Michelle Löwenhielm on the ice without a call.

Vanessa Gagnon slipped up along the left side for a shot while Leveille blocked. Amy Menke had a shot that went just wide before O’Neil fended off a Whitecaps blitz. Gagnon accidentally collided with one of her teammates and was injured badly enough that she was helped off the ice and was not on the bench for the start of second period. Minnesota won a faceoff then Meaghan Pezon fed the puck to Allie Thunstrom, who immediately came up the right side and lofted the puck past O’Neil into goal at 14:40. Even after the goal the Whitecaps continued to apply pressure. Jamie Goldsmith was denied and then Katerina Mrázová had a great attempt in the last minute of the period.

There was some rink racing to start second period. Lee Stecklein made an initial shot and her teammate immediately put the rebound on goal, but O’Neil denied both. Löwenhielm had a nice shot into Leveille, which she hung onto instead of allowing the Whale another chance. Then Jonna Curtis had a shot, which O’Neil blocked, but the puck was still in the slot and Lauren Barnes banged home the rebound at 4:17. Pezon hauled Taylor Marchin to the ice, earning herself a slashing penalty at 4:38. The Whale cycled the puck, but otherwise were unable to accomplish anything on the power play.

Stecklein went for body checking a Whale along the Minnesota sideboards at 7:43. Almost as soon as Connecticut set themselves up on the power play Menke joined Stecklein in the box on roughing charges at 8:12, turning it into 5-on-3 play. The Whale were doing a great time, including when Shannon Doyle foiled a breakaway attempt, but then Juana Baribeau got caught cross checking at 9:37. All three penalties harmlessly expired. Colleen Murphy downed a Whitecap, who in the process also tripped Jessica Koizumi, which made Murphy sit for two on an interfence penalty at 12:27. The Whale absolutely shut down the penalty and Mrázová even had a shorthanded attempt from right side. Post penalty Mrázová remained on the attack and after wrapping around the back of Leveille’s net passed through the crease to Fluke for a top shelf goal at 16:03.

Minnesota caused a huge mess at Connecticut’s net and O’Neil was down, but still somehow managed to clear the puck. Soon afterward the Whitecaps were back with a vengeance and rapidly firing on goal. Just before the period ran our Stecklein made a lateral pass to Amanda Boulier for a blue line shot that O’Neil seemed ready to stop, but two Whitecaps crashing her crease knocked the puck past her at 19:52. There was some confusion over whether or not this was a goal before the referees determined that it was good and it was Barnes’s second of the game.

Early in the third Mrázová beat an icing and put the Whale on the attack. They quickly caused a scramble at the net that ended with a roughing penalty on Boulier at 50 seconds. Koizumi caused a mess and almost put the puck past Leveille, but play was whistled down and the Whale were unable to convert. Minnesota had an extended attack before Nina Rodgers got a nice shot from the left side. Kate Schipper had several good chances on goal and in between them Barnes nearly completed a hat trick, but was two seconds too slow to put the puck through O’Neil’s backdoor.

The second half of the period involved a lot of back and forth with the Whale getting the better chances on goal. It seemed like Minnesota had backed off a great deal and were more focused on preserving their lead rather than extending it. Curtis was tripped without a call. With about two minutes left in the period O’Neil was pulled for the extra attack. Then Schofield skated down the right side and bagged an empty netter with a lateral shot at 18:59. Menke and Boulier assisted. Sixty-one seconds later the final buzzer sounded.

The Whitecaps had beaten the Whale 4-1 after outshooting them 34-25. This regulation win pushed Minnesota past Buffalo and Boston in the standings, allowing them to finish in first place as the NWHL regular season champions. This victory also clinched them 1st seed for the playoffs, which means they will host the winner of the 4th/5th seed game—which will be between the Whale and the Riveters on Thursday—on Sunday, March 10th at TRIA Rink. It will be a single game elimination round to determine who plays in the championship game for the Isobel Cup and tickets will go fast.