On Thursday, Jan. 14 the NWHL 2021 bubble season schedule dropped. Over the course of a two-week period, each of the league’s six teams will play every team once, followed by two single elimination rounds and then the Isobel Cup championship, which will take place on Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. CT.
While no team really has an advantage in their schedule and the playoff seeding allows for an upset at any time, the Minnesota Whitecaps opening three games are arguably their toughest. Here’s a breakdown of just what they’re up against in their six regular season games.
The Whitecaps open their season on Jan. 23 at 3 p.m. CT against last year’s archrival, the Boston Pride. Notably, the Whitecaps gave them their only loss of the season and were set to face off against them for the Isobel Cup in March of 2020 before the game was cancelled due to COVID-19. This is surely a highly anticipated game for players and fans alike, and while the Cup is not on the line for them just yet, I’m sure whoever takes this win will have bragging rights throughout the competition.
Players from both of these teams own virtually all of last year’s positive stats, the Pride’s captain Jillian Dempsey leading the league in points and assists with Minnesota’s Allie Thunstrom leading the league in goals. Boston’s goaltender, Lovisa Selander just barely edged out Amanda Leveille in goalie stats as well.
To put it simply, if you’re looking for a good game to introduce yourself to this team or league, this is the one to tune into.
The following day at 12 p.m. CT, the Whitecaps will get their first look at the NWHL’s newest expansion team, the Toronto Six. Honestly, right now it’s a shot in the dark to really know how this game will go considering the first time the Six play together will be that weekend. That being said, they’ve signed some phenomenal talent in players like Mikyla Grant-Mentis who played just two games last season with the Buffalo Beauts and managed to net three points, Shiann Darkangelo and Emily Fluke, who are the most tenured players on the team, having both played for the Connecticut Whale previously, and goaltender Elaine Chuli who averaged a .922 save percentage for UConn before playing two years in the CWHL.
I expect the Six to come out swinging with a lot to prove as the new kids on the block, and for the game to be a fast-paced, intense matchup.
After a day off, the Caps will be back at it on Jan. 26 at 4:30 p.m. CT against the Metropolitan Riveters. These two teams always give each other a tough battle, and something to jump out of your seat for. They are polar opposites on the grit-factor. The Riveters play a chippy, driving style of hockey whereas the Whitecaps rely on speed and discipline on the ice.
In their last meeting, the Whitecaps shutout the Riveters 1-0, taking the season series against them. However, the Metropolitan team looks completely different having added back staggering star power in former forwards Rebecca Russo and Kelly Babstock who combine for four All-Star Game appearances, one Isobel Cup win, and 44 goals in the league. Them, plus the addition of defender Saroya Tinker, this Riveters team is elevated beyond compare and will not go down without a fight.
After another day off, the Whitecaps will meet the Connecticut Whale on Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. CT which may be their first real break of the tournament.
Historically, the Whale are a pretty easy opponent, having just four wins in the past two seasons combined. They are the only team, aside from the Six who have yet to play a game, to win an Isobel Cup and they certainly play with a chip on their shoulder because of it. Plagued with big injuries last season, they fell out of the running again quickly but much like the Riveters, they have a whole new roster this year and I don’t think they should be counted out as quickly as they were before.
The Whale have returned their veteran defenders Shannon Doyle and Elena Orlando who are leading a team with ten rookies who have all had impressive college careers. Unfortunately, it was announced that Melissa Samoskevich, who signed previously with the Whale, would not be joining the team in Lake Placid. This is a huge blow to their potential offense, however I think the elevated defense combined with last season’s goals leader for the Whale, Emma Vlasic, this team is going to be one we’ve never seen from Connecticut before.
Finally, on Jan. 30, the Whitecaps will take on the Buffalo Beauts in another matchup I expect to be very winnable for the team. The Beauts have lost league leaders in Corinne Buie and Taylor Accursi due to unavailability for the bubble, and that is a huge blow to their offense that struggled to put points on the board in their matchups last year. They will have to rely on the speed and skill of their returning all stars, Brooke Stacey and Kristin Lewicki. If those two can’t have breakout games early in the season, the Beauts will struggle.
After this round, each team will be reseeded and meet their fate on Jan. 31 for the first round of eliminations. If the Whitecaps play their cards right, they should hope to meet one of the latter three teams mentioned and try to avoid the Pride as much as possible.