The stakes couldn’t have been clearer last weekend, when the Whitecaps traveled to the East Coast for their final two games of the regular season.
“We knew if we lost the series, we wouldn’t be home for the playoffs,’’ co-head coach Ronda Engelhardt said. “And that was what we all longed for, to be home for our crowd.’’
The Whitecaps got what they wanted, sweeping Boston and Connecticut to earn the top seed for the Isobel Cup playoffs. Sunday, they begin pursuit of their first National Women’s Hockey League championship, facing the Metropolitan Riveters in the semifinals at Tria Rink.
Though the league’s regular season is protracted — with 16 games spread over five months — the postseason is a rapid-fire affair. Should the Whitecaps win Sunday, they would host the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Boston and Buffalo next weekend in a winner-take-all final.
After a rough stretch in the middle of the season, Minnesota enters the playoffs on a five-game win streak, a surge that has it well-positioned to challenge for the title in its first season as an NWHL member.
“Our goal was to make a statement, to show Minnesota belonged here,’’ Engelhardt said. “We wanted to play great hockey and be successful.
“We’re feeling good. We built confidence through the weekend, and I think the players are ready. We’re excited to get out there and get to business.’’
The Whitecaps won their first six games of the season, then went 1-4 against Boston and Buffalo, the league’s second- and third-place teams, respectively. They gave up 17 goals in three losses this season to Boston, a sore spot they remedied in last Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the Pride.
The team has gotten solid goaltending from former Gopher Amanda Leveille, who has surrendered only three goals in her past four games, and balanced scoring. Forward Jonna Curtis, an Elk River native, is tied for second in the NWHL with 19 points. Two Whitecaps defensemen — Lee Stecklein and Amanda Boulier — are among three finalists for NWHL defender of the year.
The Whitecaps sold out all eight regular-season games in 1,200-seat Tria Rink and set a league record for fastest sellout last week, when all tickets for Sunday’s game were gone in 25 hours.