Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Minnesota Whitecaps NWHL bubble season, game 3: (Return of the Mack) once again

The last fans saw of the National Women’s Hockey League in 2020, the Minnesota Whitecaps defeated the Metropolitan Riveters in a 1-0, overtime game in St. Paul in the Isobel Cup semifinal. Picking up where the league rivals left off, they skated for nearly 60 minutes of scoreless hockey Tuesday night at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid. 

In a game filled with chances and outstanding goaltending at either end, the Whitecaps found themselves with a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage near the end of regulation. Time ticked down on the final 20 seconds. Meghan Lorence accepted a pass at the point and sent the puck toward her teammate Haley Mack near the goal line. 

Mack wasted little time on the doorstep, firing the puck past Riveters goaltender Sonjia Shelly with 10.5 ticks on the clock. Whitecaps win, 1-0. Shelly made 36 saves, while Amanda Leveille stopped all 38 shots she faced for Minnesota.  

“I had full faith in my teammates that we were going to score on that 5-on-3,” said Leveille, before referencing Mack in a postgame Zoom call. “Superstar over here just netted another goal for us.” 

A “superstar” to her teammate, Mack is also an NWHL rookie who’s left quite the first impression. Only three games into her NWHL career, she’s responsible for the game-winners in two games, adding a shootout goal against the Toronto Six on Sunday. 

“It’s a huge win for our team,” Mack said Tuesday. “Just go out there, outwork them on the 5-on-3. We had an opportunity, and we were able to execute that. So that was good.” 

Mack, who was drafted 23rd overall in the fourth round of the 2020 NWHL Draft, spend the past four seasons playing for Bemidji State University. She’s coming off a season in which she scored 15 goals and 28 points in 37 games. 

Chatter about the Whitecaps roster for the 2021 shortened season often focuses on it being a veteran squad, obviously with a lot of Minnesota natives on it as well. Names like Jonna Curtis, Emma Stauber, Allie Thunstrom, Audra Richards and Meaghan Pezon have all been on the Whitecaps previously, along with a bunch of their teammates. 

But three games in, it’s the rookie Mack who’s been one of the biggest factors in the 3-0 Whitecaps record.

In this 2021 NWHL Bubble Season, each team is scheduled for fives games (one against each NWHL team) before the playoffs, and then Isobel Cup semifinals and championship. The Whitecaps started out with the matchup no one got to see at the end of last season, when they were set to face the Boston Pride in the Isobel Cup Final before COVID-19 precautions shut everything down in March. 

This past Saturday, the Whitecaps used a comeback victory and more stellar goaltending to earn a 2-1 victory over Boston, a team that was nearly unbeatable a season ago. Down 1-0 in the first period, Curtis tied the game about a minute later. The game-winner came in the second period from captain and original Whitecaps defenseman, 42-year-old Winny Brodt Brown.

It was Brodt Brown’s first goal in the NWHL. 

But the true star of the game was Leveille. No stranger to big games and backstopping her team to victory, Leveille made 36 saves. 

The next day was a bit of a different story, with Leveille surrendering three first-period goals to the Toronto Six, in their inaugural season. Allie Morse came into the game in relief before Leveille finished off a perfect third period. 

The Whitecaps were on their heels early, getting down 3-0 before Sydney Baldwin scored late in the first period on the power play to shrink the deficit. Toronto took a 5-1 lead with 1:32 left in the second period before a flurry of activity. Thirty-one seconds later, Haylea Schmid got one back for the Whitecaps. Then with 12 seconds left in the period, Mack officially got on the scoresheet with her first NWHL goal to make it a 5-3 game headed into the second intermission. 

In the third, Richards scored a shorthanded goal with 7 minutes to play. Only 1 minute, 23 seconds later, Pezon fired the puck into the goal on the power play to tie the game, 5-5, completing the Whitecaps’ comeback with four unanswered goals. Special teams were a factor in this one, with 17 total penalties and plenty of 4-on-4 hockey.

It took five rounds of the shootout to get the Whitecaps win. While Leveille made four of the five saves, Curtis scored for the Whitecaps before Mack added her shootout winner. 

Then came the back-and-forth, odd-man-rush type of game against the Riveters.

“Whenever we play the Riveters, it’s always a close game,” Lorence said. “It’s always a battle to the finish. Being able to draw that penalty and capitalize on it was huge.” 

The Whitecaps face the Connecticut Whale at 7:30 p.m. CST Thursday before seeing the Buffalo Beauts Saturday afternoon. All games at broadcast on twitch.tv/nwhl, with the Isobel Cup semifinal and final games getting the nod on television via NBCSN. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Sharing positive vibes through #SportsSmiles

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the shutdown of sports in March, I wanted to get some positive vibes out on Twitter. I shared a photo from Target Field with the hashtag #SportsSmiles, and I asked others to share their favorite photos and/or memories from times that sports made them smile. 

I got a lot of great responses that I retweeted at the time, but I thought it would be fun to group them all together and share them here as well. 

It's never too late to submit a #SportsSmiles photo! 

The 2020 chapter

Hindsight is quite a funny thing. 

I ended a lengthy post on New Year's Eve 2019 with this line: "Cheers to 2020 and the next decade of work, friends!"

Looking at that now, a year later, saying cheers to 2020 seems absolutely ridiculous. Who would want to toast to the year that gave us a pandemic? As my dad has said for months, 2020 will go down as the year where nothing happened. 

I guess it's true that the world didn't completely shut down, but what a whirlwind of differences. I think many of us can agree that time played tricks on us this past year, or some would say that time means nothing in 2020. Working from home, what day is it? A 60-game baseball season ended this fall but made me think it was June. I felt like I got my weekends back, without work/sports, while many friends felt the opposite and more overwhelmed. 

Baseball returned... eventually
Reflecting at year's end is quite common, and I'm proud of what I wrote last year encompassing my work over the decade. As for this year, I'd also direct readers to my post from July titled Pandemic Projects where I detailed many of the things that occupied my time, work-wise and otherwise, throughout the spring and early summer before baseball started. 

The only real sense of normalcy since the pandemic started came with that 60-game baseball season from the end of July through September. Covering games again was so nice, even if it was all from the comforts of home instead of only the road games from home. It was odd watching games played at Target Field on TV, and even in the final week of the season I always had to remind myself when a new homestand or road trip started so my pregame work routine wouldn't get messed up. 

The Minnesota Twins finished with back-to-back American League Central Division Championships, getting another stellar year from designated hitter Nelson Cruz, phenomenal pitching from Kenta Maeda (including a near no-hitter) and a few Bombas thrown in, too. Max Kepler started the season with a home run on the first pitch he saw, after all. We don't need to get into the postseason, except to mention that the playoff format changed a bit and teams played in bubbles in California and Texas. 

A busy, pre-pandemic winter
When it comes to my writing this year, let me back up to pre-pandemic times. One of the first things I covered in 2020 was a Minnesota Wild outdoor practice in St. Louis Park. It came right after the announcement that the Wild were *finally* going to host a Winter Classic, scheduled for Jan. 1, 2021 at Target Field. Oh man, I haven't thought about that in a while. My baseball and hockey worlds were going to collide, and I was so ready for it. Of course, the pandemic canceled that fun. 

Also in January, I filled in covering a few Gopher men's basketball games, including an upset of No. 19 Michigan. I continued my work with Minnesota Hockey Magazine as a Wild beat writer and a contributor to NBC SportsEngine covering high school hockey games. 

Since Hockey Day Minnesota stayed local in Minneapolis this year, I covered my first HDM. Fun fact: It's more than one day. Despite the very cold, snowy and windy weather at the outdoor rink, I covered two high school games Thursday night, featuring local schools Holy Angels and Blake girls' hockey teams each hosting an opponent. On Friday, I watched the women's all-star game with Minnesota Whitecaps, NWHL and former Gophers players. Saturday, the Gopher women hosted a game. Each of those brought features for the spring 2020 issues of Minnesota Hockey Magazine. 

The main events on the sunny, but chilly, Saturday were great match-ups between boys' high school hockey powerhouses. I covered Blaine versus Blake. Conditions weren't ideal, but I had a great time running around the rink, talking to players and watching outdoor hockey. 

Hockey, hockey, hockey 
Among the bigger stories on the Wild beat last winter, top forward Jason Zucker got traded to Pittsburgh and coach Bruce Boudreau was fired on Valentine's Day. That's still an interesting move to ponder. I also wrote a story on the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, jumping on a conference call with other media and Al Michaels, who had the famous call. 

As the prep hockey season wound down, I covered section finals for the Star Tribune, then put on my Minnesota Hockey Magazine cap to cover the boys' and girls' state tournaments. Breck won yet another Class 1A championship, while Andover knocked off three-time champs Edina in Class 2A on the girls' side. The Andover boys' team finally made the tourney, only to be upset as the top seed in the quarterfinals by St. Thomas Academy; Hill-Murray won it all in Class 2A, and Mahtomedi finally broke through for a championship.

I followed the Minnesota Whitecaps for their second season in the NWHL, covering their 1-0, overtime, semifinal victory in March. They were supposed to play the title game a week later. A title game that never happened. 

I kept somewhat busy during the pandemic with feature stories for USAHockey.com and SportsEngine. Then there were winter preview stories for Breakdown Sports. Throughout the year, and especially this fall, I put together a couple dozen feature stories for the Otter Tail Lakes Country Magazine, focusing on communities throughout Otter Tail County. 

A few of the most fun projects for me this year came out of some pandemic creativity as I strived to determine how to keep busy, keep writing and keep focused on sports. I had so much fun writing the 14-part series for three sports movies: A League of Their Own, The Rookie and Angels in the Outfield. I turned them into a combination of summary, sarcasm and asking questions about why certain things were done in the movies. 

Finding the good in 2020
So, those were some highlights of my year. Was it fantastic? No. Was it terrible? Also no. I'm blessed to continue writing. I've seen a lot of takes on social media lately as the year 2020 wraps up. Some people want to make it clear that just because the calendar flips to 2021 doesn't mean everything goes back to whatever normal will be. Others don't want to hear about good things that happened to people, because the year was so bad for many; others have the opposite view and want positive vibes.

For me, I wanted to share some of the good things. Part of it is a way to look back and realize what I've accomplished, especially when work is slower and motivation can be light. I'll also admit that I've felt the pandemic fatigue lately. It can be tough missing traditions we used to have, missing sports seasons that are normally in full swing, missing friends, missing simple things like getting together in-person, wondering when things will return to whatever definition of normal. 

But there's always hope. For whatever is going on in your life, clinging to hope and faith is huge. And if there's one thing a new year can bring, it's hope for good things. 

Thanks, as always, for reading. Let's connect on Twitter and Instagram; I'm @hlrule.