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2021 NWHL Season Preview

Saturday marks the start of the NWHL’s sixth season, one that carries a lot of “firsts.”

The first game played by a Canadian franchise in the league, the first NWHL games on national television, and the first time teams will play more than two games in the same week. As fans embark on an unusual season, it can be hard to know where exactly to look in a season where the format, rosters, and structure have undergone significant changes due to a little thing called coronavirus. Maybe you caught our NWHL primer, but even the most seasoned NWHL fans are unsure what to expect in a bubble format with new names and faces. To help, let’s review the when and the where, recent changes, the most highly anticipated matchups and storylines, and players who may elevate to stardom this year. 

Going Over The Basics

For season six, the NWHL will play a bubble tournament in Lake Placid. You can read a little more on the Coronavirus testing and financial aspects of the NWHL bubble here. The regular season consists of five games, where each of the six teams will play each other once before entering a play-in round to determine which four teams advance to the semifinal. The semifinal and final will be single elimination games. 

NBC Sports Network will be broadcasting the Isobel Cup semifinals and finals. Prior to Lake Placid, The only time professional women’s hockey has been broadcasted nationally was the now-defunct CWHL finals on Sportsnet and NHL network. For fans who don’t have access to NBCSN, all three games will be streamed on twitch.tv/nwhl for free along with the regular season and play in games. 

The NWHL schedule is as follows. All times in Eastern Standard Time. 

Regular season, all games on Twitch.Tv/nwhl

Sat., Jan. 23

Toronto Six at Metropolitan Riveters 1:00 PM

Boston Pride at Minnesota Whitecaps 4:00 PM

Connecticut Whale at Buffalo Beauts 7:00 PM

Sun., Jan. 24

Minnesota Whitecaps at Toronto Six 1:00 PM

Metropolitan Riveters at Connecticut Whale 4:00 PM

Buffalo Beauts at Boston Pride 7:00 PM

Tue., Jan. 26

Minnesota Whitecaps at Metropolitan Riveters 5:30 PM

Toronto Six at Boston Pride 8:30 PM

Wed., Jan. 27 

Boston Pride at Connecticut Whale 5:30 PM

Metropolitan Riveters at Buffalo Beauts 8:30 pm

Thur., Jan. 28

Buffalo Beauts at Toronto Six 5:30 PM

Connecticut Whale at Minnesota Whitecaps 8:30 PM

Sat., Jan. 30

Connecticut Whale at Toronto Six 12:00 PM

Minnesota Whitecaps at Buffalo Beauts 3:00 PM

Boston Pride at Metropolitan Riveters 6:00 PM

Play in round, all games on Twitch.Tv/nwhl

Sun., Jan. 31

Seed 4 at Seed 3 2:00 PM

Seed 6 at Seed 2 5:00 PM

Seed 5 at Seed 1 8:00 PM

Tue., Feb. 2

Seed 6 at Seed 1 5:30 PM

Seed 4 at Seed 2 8:30 PM

Wed., Feb. 3

Seed 5 at Seed 3 7:00 PM

Playoffs, all games on NBC Sports Network and twitch.tv/nwhl

Thur., Feb. 4 

Seed 4 at Seed 1 5:30 PM 

Seed 3 at Seed 2 8:00 PM

Fri., Feb. 5 

Isobel Cup Finals 7:00 PM

Due to the bubble format and the logistics of taking two weeks off to play in Lake Placid, rosters have undergone a few changes. A few players who previously signed with the NWHL have chosen to opt-out. Not all the names are known yet, but they do include stars like Corinne Buie (Minnesota Whitecaps), Jordan Brickner (Connecticut Whale), Taylor Accursi (Buffalo Beauts), and Melissa Samoskevich (Connecticut Whale.) Teams have made last-minute additions to balance out their losses, like Mackenzie Lancaster signing with the Connecticut Whale. Fans will also get to see more players lace up for their team as instead of the NWHL’s typical 15 skater lineup, teams will be allowed to dress 18 skaters. The change allows coaches to play four forward lines, the norm in IIHF and NHL hockey. Expect to see a few more announcements on roster changes as we close in on game one! 

Most Anticipated Games 

“All of them” is too vague of an answer, but it is tempting considering the season opens up with two must-watch games. If you want to catch every team in their most exciting match ups, here’s what to make time for.

  • Toronto Six Vs. Metropolitan Riveters, January 23: The very first game of the the NWHL season will showcase the first-ever game for the Toronto Six franchise, with captain Shiann Darkangelo making her much anticipated return to the NWHL. Riveters fans will get to see long time captain and defender Ashley Johnston making her debut on the coaching staff, with draft picks like Saroya Tinker and Bridgette Prentiss playing their first professional hockey game. 
  • Boston Pride vs Minnesota Whitecaps, January 23: The two teams who were supposed to play for the Isobel Cup in season five before the final was canceled due to the pandemic. Both want to prove that, had things been different, they’d be going home with the Isobel Cup last March. While the Boston Pride had the superior 23-1 record, their only loss came to the Minnesota Whitecaps, which was also the last time the teams played each other. Co-MVP’s Allie Thunstrom and Jillian Dempsey will look to lead their teams to a victory that means more than just two points. 
  • Buffalo Beauts at Metropolitan Riveters, January 27: If you like rivalries, the battle of New York is one to circle on your calendar. No matter how much the rosters change, fans can always count on the Riveters and Beauts to have high tension games, scrums, and sometimes suspensions. Beyond the fights are some of the most iconic moments in NWHL history. The underdog Buffalo Beauts beat a dominant Riveters team in 2017 on their way to win the cup, but the Riveters got their revenge when they’d defeat the Beauts in the finals in 2018. Two years later, they’d play in the NWHL’s first outdoor game between two teams, the Buffalo Believes classic. 
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  • Connecticut Whale vs. Minnesota Whitecaps, January 28: Last year, the team the Whale struggled the most against was not the Boston Pride, but the fast Minnesota Whitecaps. The Whale have gotten stronger, faster, and more offensive this offseason, and a game against the team that dished them some of their hardest losses will be a good litmus test on how they’ve improved. Connecticut rookies Kayla Friesen and Amanda Conway hope to translate their collegiate offensive success against two-time Isobel Cup champion Amanda Leveille just two days before the round-robin is set to begin. 

Storylines To Watch

 The Underdogs: The Connecticut Whale are the only team, besides the brand new Toronto Six, to not win an Isobel Cup. In the last two seasons, they’ve only won four of forty regular-season games. Things started looking up last season after the Whale won their first-ever playoff series and advanced to the semifinals thanks to the help of goaltender Brooke Wolejko and new coach Colton Orr. With strong offseason acquisitions, the Whale are hungry for the cup, especially as this will be captain Shannon Doyle’s final season. NWHL fans could be looking at a from worst to first story. 

Comebacks: A lot of players are making their returns to the NWHL after time off, or hoping to play their first full NWHL season after missing significant time last season. On the Buffalo Beauts is Brooke Stacey, a star forward who was averaging a point per game last season before she left the team to have her first child, and Jordan Juron, who had been with the team a few seasons before but had her season cut short due to back injury. The Beauts also have Lisa Chesson, who’s returning to the team after a season with the PWHPA. Like Chesson, Kelly Babstock and Rebecca Russo are returning to the league for the Metropolitan Riveters after a season away. Each player wants to prove that they can be a difference-maker for their teams in the playoffs, and in cases like Stacey and Juron, the impact they can have over a full tournament. 

New Team, Familiar Faces: The Toronto Six is a new franchise with a lot of players making their NWHL debut, but most are familiar due to their play in the CWHL or SDHL. One highly anticipated name making her NWHL debut isn’t a player, but coach Margaret “Digit” Murphy. NCAA fans may be familiar with her from her 318 career wins with Brown University. CWHL fans know her for winning the coach of the year in 2013 after guiding the Boston Blades to the Clarkson Cup. Currently, Murphy is the only woman head coach in the league and one of the most respected coaches in the sport, having an impact on every league she’s coached in. Starting Saturday, she’ll begin to make her mark on the NWHL. A little more about her and the rest of the Six coaching staff can be read here

Emerging Stars

  Between a large rookie class and returning players looking to bring their game to a new level, there are players on every roster ready to become household names. On the Boston Pride is rookie Sammy Davis, who went first overall in the NWHL draft. Already a legend at Boston University for her 142 points in 147 games, Davis is hoping to bring the same kind of production to the NWHL and cement herself as a franchise cornerstone among names like Jillian Dempsey and McKenna Brand, and prove why she was a first overall pick.

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Over the offseason, the Buffalo Beauts acquired Kayla Meneghin, who started to shine last season with the Connecticut Whale. Despite missing a month and a half, she still managed to put up 8 points in 14 games last season, including two goals on the power play. Meneghin also played for SUNY-Plattsburgh and ranks six overall in all-time points by a NCAA Division III women’s hockey player. In her return to upstate New York, Meneghin is hoping to bring some offense to a Beauts special teams unit that struggled last season. 

For the Whale, rookie defender Tori Howran is anticipated to add an offensive element to the team’s shut down defense core. Howran captained the University of New Hampshire team last season and had a career year with 22 points in 37 games. Connecticut has long needed a power-play quarterback and a play driving defender to complement the shot-blocking penalty killers of Orlando and Doyle, and Whale fans will have their eyes on Howran to fill that role. 

The Riveters have a mix of old and new faces to be excited about, but one familiar name poised for a breakout season is Tatiana Shatalova. A native of Belarus, Shatalova became the youngest player to sign in the NWHL at just 19. She already had a few years playing professionally in Russia’s women’s hockey league and on the Russian national team under her belt, experience that would show in her 12 points in 21 games last year. What sets her apart is her incredibly stick handling abilities, like what we saw in her shootout goal against Minnesota or her effort to evade Pride defenders for a goal. With a year of NWHL hockey under Shatalova’s belt and development with her team, there could be many more of those highlight-reel goals this season. 

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Sara Bustad is returning home to the Minnesota Whitecaps after a season with the Buffalo Beauts. The defender will look to help Amanda Boulier with offense on the backend. Last year, Bustad was part of a Beauts defense group depleted by injury, not able to always jump up on the play because of the required added emphasis on defensive responsibility. On a more stable and, hopefully, healthy defense group that she’s been practicing with for several months now, Bustad can provide essential secondary scoring. Another reason why she may become a star, or at least a fan favorite, is her pesky nature. Bustad had 30 penalty minutes last year, bringing a bit of mean that the Whitecaps may value going against teams like the Riveters. 

Everyone on the Six roster is new to the team, and many new to the league or professional hockey as a whole. It’s hard to pick just one player who will make a name for themselves this season with a franchise with a clean slate, but NWHL fans have already gotten a small taste of Mikyla Grant-Mentis’ play, making her an easy choice. The Merrimack University graduate holds the all-time record for just about everything in her alma matter, including points, assists, and second overall in goals. During her senior year, Grant-Mentis had a primary point (goal or first assist) on 54% off the team’s total points. Grant-Mentis had five points in three games with the Beauts last year, including two playoff points in just one game. Now, the Six will get to see what a difference-maker she is across a full season.

For more hockey thoughts and opinions from Kacey, check out their author page or Twitter.

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