NWHL: New Year, New Riveters?

Mariya Sorokina backstops a 6-3 victory for the defending champions

On Thursday, the defending champions took to the ice for the second and final practice ahead of Sunday’s game against the Connecticut Whale. The Riveters entered yesterday’s game 2-8-0 and scored 17 goals in their first ten games. It is not the start the team wanted or expected. With their first game of the 2019 portion of the season coming up, they had a chance to turn the corner. The team looked and sounded focused as they took the ice at the Barnabas Health Hockey House in New Jersey. The goal: New year, new Riveters.

“I think the biggest thing is 2019 new year new slate,” said sophomore defender Jenny Ryan before practice. “Obviously, rankings are important but everybody’s going to make the playoffs, and I think we’re focused on just fine-tuning a lot of little things and making sure we’re going into 2019 on the same page.”

When asked what three things the team needed to focus on ahead of Sunday and for the rest of the season, the Wisconsin alumna said scoring goals, having confidence in their systems, and having fun.

“I think sometimes we get a little bit, not nervous, but we just aren’t super confident in our systematic play and we just have to trust each other and make sure that we’re playing off of each other,” said Ryan. She continued, “We’ve been getting bad bounces against us and not for us.”

From Ryan’s mouth to the Riveters ears.

In Stamford, the Riveters earned a 6-3 victory over the home team. Team leading scorer Audra Richards potted two goals on the night, while Madison Packer, Rebecca Russo, Alexa Gruschow, and Miye D’Oench all scored once. 2018 Olympic gold medalist Amanda Kessel tallied five assists — beating her league record of four goals in a single game — and Packer added three of her own.

For Kessel, the win was a reminder the Riveters need to stay disciplined, “I don’t know if we necessarily were working hard is as hard as we could in the beginning of that year and I think we’re figuring out that, every team in this league is really good and some are more talented than others. But, you can never be outwork. To have that going up to Buffalo, knowing that we’re going to be playing a great team, I feel good with where we’re at.”

The mood, the mentality, and the lineup changed for the Riveters. Russian goalie Mariya Sorokina was acquired from the Connecticut Whale for “future considerations.” She made her Riveters and NWHL debut against her former team and collected a win off 18 saves at a .857% clip.

“So far she’s been a great addition obviously getting her first win with us. You can tell she’s a really talented goalie and super nice kid so we’re happy to have her,” commented Kessel.

Mariya Sorokina gets coaching from Amy Zappen at the 2018 NWHL Goalie Development Camp in Florida. Photo Credit: Kevin Bires

It will be interesting to see how Velischek proceeds. Does the win earn newcomer Sorokina another chance? Will Isobel Cup Final MVP Katie Fitzgerald return to the crease as the Riveters face the Buffalo Beauts for the first time since winning the 2018 Championship 1-0? Kimberly Sass has also seen time in net, will she return?

Will having four goalies (Sorokina, Fitzgerald, Sass, and Sarah Bryant) on the roster, mean netminding by-committee, or will the Riveters ride one goalie the rest of the way?

On the one hand, one could argue rotating goalies will keep the team on their toes and perhaps toss a different look at opponent in New Jersey’s favor. On the other hand, one could argue a consistent roster down the stretch puts the Riveters in the best position to develop their game ahead of the playoffs.

For Packer, it wasn’t just one thing or one person that turned the tide Sunday, “[Sorokina is] a phenomenal goaltender, but I think that our team – she was a part of the team – but our team won the game today. [Goaltending] wasn’t the difference.”

Packer makes a solid point. The Riveters have other problems that need fixing and Sunday was a good start. This weekend, the team posted a single-game record for goals for the 2018-19 season. Before Sunday’s six-goal performance, the Riveters only scored over three goals one time in 10 games. That was a 4-3 shootout victory over Connecticut on November 25, 2018.

Additionally, the Riveters six goals came from four different skaters and two defenders (Courtney Burke and Chelsea Ziadie) tallied assists on Sunday. Finally, the team was 40% on the power play, improving to 9.5% on the advantage (opponents average 15.2% on the power play against the Riveters). However, the biggest improvement seems to be their attitude.

“It feels really get to start off the new year like this,” said Kessel after the game. “I think it was one of those things where you’re just waiting … you just keep doing the same thing and as long as you’re working hard and sticking with it at some point, it had to turn for us.”

The Riveters improved to 3-8-0 on the season and leapfrogged Connecticut in the standings. The team will travel up to Buffalo to take on the Beauts for the first of four games series. The third place Beauts (6-4-0) sit six points above the Riveters in the standings.

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