Riveters make big splash on opening day of NWHL free agency

In the brief history of the New York Riveters, May 1, 2016 may be remembered as the $50,000 day. Spending approximately 20 per cent of their salary cap on a trio of free agents, general manager Chad Wiseman has made a bold statement about ensuring that the Riveters do not end up in the basement for the second consecutive season.

After trading away the rights to Alex Carpenter, a possible franchise player and potential face for the league, to the Boston Pride, Riveters fans were briefly left to ponder what might have been. Wiseman would ensure that such grief would not last as he acquired one of the most coveted free agents in all of hockey.

Signing Amanda Kessel to a one-year deal worth $26,000, she now surpassed Kelli Stack as the highest paid player in the NWHL. Following such an acquisition, the Riveters would welcome a pair of Connecticut Whale stars into the fold.

Elite blueliner Kaleigh Fratkin was signed to a deal worth $19,500 while goaltender Jaimie Leonoff agreed on a one-year contract worth $10,000, making the team’s grand total $55,500 for a trio of free agents that will be expected to turn the franchise’s fortunes around.

With any free agent signing, there is an element of risk, making such acquisitions a gamble. Taking into account that Kessel was shelved for close to two years due to concussion related problems, there is definitely a fear that such woes may resurface in the NWHL. Should Kessel suffer another concussion, it will be another sad chapter in the ravage that the injury has caused, abruptly cutting many playing careers short

Undoubtedly, a healthy Kessel is good for the game overall. Should she remain healthy, she will clearly be the marquee player for the Riveters, helping add an element of excitement for women’s hockey in the New York market. Kessel has demonstrated a readiness to play, as demonstrated by her heroics as she scored the game-winning goal for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 2016 NCAA Frozen Four title game.

Strategically, the acquisition of Kessel may prove to pay positive dividends for the Riveters. During a week filled with many trades, Wiseman also acquired the playing rights to Hannah Brandt on April 27. Selected second overall in the 2015 NWHL Draft, the first-ever selection in Connecticut Whale draft history, it was a shrewd acquisition on the part of the franchise.

Considering that Brandt and Kessel were linemates with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the chance to extend careers as linemates in the NWHL may prove to be the elixir to remedy the Riveters’ offensive woes. From a draft standpoint, their involvement with the Riveters may prove to be even more important.

With the first overall pick in the 2016 NWHL Draft, the Riveters shall likely turn to Minnesota once again for another piece of the puzzle. Forward Dani Cameranesi and blueliner Lee Stecklein are definitely the top prospects in this year’s draft. Should the Riveters select one of them, they shall be known colloquially as “Minnesota East.”

Adding to the momentum of acquiring Kessel are a pair of Canadian-born players that made their mark with the Connecticut Whale during its inaugural season. In becoming the first free agents to actually change alleagiances and sign with another team, Kaleigh Fratkin and Jaimie Leonoff become part of a unique chapter in league history.

For these two distinguished competitors, they have been making history since they first signed with the Whale. From the outset, Fratkin, a native of British Columbia, became the first Canadian-born blueliner to sign an NWHL contract. In addition to participating in the league’s inaugural All-Star Game, Fratkin would also play with the Boston Pride for one day, gracing the ice at the Women’s Winter Classic.

Having led all NWHL blueliners in scoring during the league’s inaugural campaign, Fratkin displayed a scoring proficiency that will prove crucial for the Riveters. In a season where the Riveters struggled to assemble any offensive attack, the club lacked an offensive minded blueliner. The arrival of Fratkin should also provide the Riveters with a quarterback on the power play, likely adding more W’s to the wins column.

Standing between the pipes in 10 games for the Whale, Jaimie Leonoff not only gained the first win in franchise history, she would also be credited with the first win in league history. The Montreal-raised Leonoff would also gain the start in the NWHL All-Star Game, allowing the first goal in all-star history.

Finishing her season with a 7-3-0 mark, complemented by a solid .936 save percentage, Leonoff will be given every opportunity to earn the starting goaltenders job. As a side note, Nana Fujimoto, the Riveters starter in 2015-16 was Leonoff’s teammate at the All-Star Game.

Buffalo Beauts play in NWHL’s first shootout as they host Military Appreciation Day

In a game that held special meaning for fans and players alike, the Buffalo Beauts hosted Military Appreciation Day at Harbor Center. Of note, it signified the second consecutive weekend that a Military Appreciation Event was hosted by an NWHL club, with the New York Riveters hosting the first.

The Beauts event was held in conjunction with Defending the Blue Line (DTBL), an organization dedicated to ensuring that hockey resources are made available for children of military members. Not only did the Beauts host 50 members of the United States Armed Forces, along with respective family, a 50/50 draw took place, with half the proceeds going to DTBL. In addition, Tickets for military personnel were sold at half price, while all Purple Heart recipients were granted free admission.

No one could anticipate the outcome to follow as the Beauts and the visiting Connecticut Whale participated in the first shootout in NWHL history, while Emily Pfalzer became the first player in Beauts franchise history to record five points in one game.

From the outset, the Niagara Falls Airbase color guard graced the ice during the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, followed by SGM Jason Jaskula participating in the ceremonial puck drop. Adding to the show of support of the brave men and women of the Armed Forces, the Beauts donned special edition camouflage jerseys. Said jerseys were available for auction after the game, with DTBL as the beneficiaries of the proceeds.

Searching for their first win in franchise history, the first period did not turn out in the Beauts favor. Sam Faber, an inaugural member of the CWHL’s Boston Blades, scored her first NWHL goal with 13:02 remaining. Her milestone goal would be scored against Brianne McLaughlin, a two-time Winter Games silver medalist.

In a span of less than four minutes, the Whale would capitalize on power play opportunities, establishing a four goal lead. This was partly attributed to Buffalo’s Megan Bozek called for slashing, a five-minute major, which saw her ejected from the game. With 11:10 remaining in the first, Kaleigh Fratkin, the first Canadian-born player signed to an NWHL contract took advantage, with Jordan Brickner and Jessica Koizumi earning the assists.

Fratkin would follow it up just 61 seconds later with her second straight power play goal. Kelly Babstock scored with 7:37 remaining as Fratkin earned her third consecutive point with an assist.

Undeterred, Buffalo would fight back, despite being shorthanded. 44 seconds after Babstock’s goal, Kelley Steadman breathed new life back into a dejected Buffalo squad, trimming the Whale lead. Pfalzer and Kelly Mcdonald would log the assists as Buffalo had already served three penalties by that time.

Before the period would expire, Paige Harrington was called for hitting from behind, giving Buffalo another penalty.
Once again, the Whale capitalized, as Koizumi scored on McLaughlin with just two minutes remaining in a frustrating period for the Beauts. Taking into account that the Whale were not called for one penalty in said period, the 5-1 advantage did not come across as surprising. Of surprise though, was the fact that the Beauts outshot the Whale by a 13-10 margin.

Heading into the second period, another six goals were scored, already resulting in the highest scoring game of the NWHL’s young season. Instead of the Whale scoring five goals, like they did in the first, it was the Beauts that would reciprocate.

Before the Beauts’ five goal outburst, the Whale would score again, as Shannon Doyle assisted on a goal by Jordan Brickner, making a comeback appear impossible. Adding to the Beauts woes was the fact that Brianne McLaughlin was pulled in favor of Amanda Makela, making her NWHL debut under such strenuous circumstances.

Kourtney Kunichika, familiar to Western New York hockey fans for her heroics with the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers started things for the Beauts, with the Beauts second goal of the game with 14:48 remaining in the second stanza. As a side note, Meghan Duggan and Emily Pfalzer logged the assists.

Despite over seven minutes of scoreless play, the Beauts were able to mount a comeback via the power play. With Danielle Ward serving a pair of penalties (roughing, interference), the result were goals by Kelley Steadman and Kunichika in a span of 90 seconds. Just 17 seconds following Kunichika’s second goal, the first multi-goal game of her NWHL career, Meghan Duggan (also the captain for Team USA) scored, as the fans at Harbor Center roared in approval.

With the Whale’s lead reduced to just one goal, goaltender Nicole Stock was replaced by Jaimie Leonoff, who won the first game in NWHL history. Hayley Williams would make some of her own history as she logged her first career NWHL goal with 3:23 remaining, as Emily Pfalzer registered her fifth assist of the game, a franchise record. As the second period came to a close, a stunned Whale squad were faced with a 6-6 tie, while a jubilant Beauts roster was injected with remarkable confidence, seeing its first win possibly within reach.

Fatigue set in as the third period progressed, with both sides only managing five shots each. As the third period and subsequent overtime could not resolve the 6-6 tie, a shootout was necessary, the first in NWHL history. Going first was the Whale’s Kelly Babstock and she would not miss, providing the Whale with an early 1-0 advantage.

Considering that Babstock was also the first Canadian to score a goal in regular season play, it is fitting that she makes history twice by scoring the NWHL’s first-ever shootout goal.
Kunichika would become the first Beauts player to participate in a shootout, unable to slip the puck past Jaimie Leonoff. Having both skated for the US national team; Shiann Darkangelo and Kelley Steadman were unable to score for their respective teams, as the score was still 1-0 in favor of the Whale.

Among the NWHL’s scoring leaders, franchise player Kelli Stack attempted to put the game away for the Whale. Instead, she was denied by Makela, who allowed the Beauts one more try to tie and force a fourth shooter. Tatiana Rafter, one of the all-time leading scorers with the University of British Columbia, soared down the ice with a fierce focus, but her aspirations of extending the shootout were denied by Leonoff, whose poise between the pipes enabled the Whale to remain the only undefeated team in NWHL play.

While the Whale managed to escape with a very tense 7-6 shootout win, the first game determined via shootout in NWHL history, the Beauts have seen their confidence strengthen, firm in the belief that their first win shall soon follow. Pflalzer, whose five-assist performance also set a record for most points in an NWHL regular season game by a blueliner was recognized as the game’s First Star. Kelley Steadman, who sits atop the league leader in goals gained the Second Star with her solid two-goal performance. Also scoring twice was Kunichika, earning third star recognition on a milestone-filled day.