Even as a Minnesota native, Hannah Brandt had never experienced anything quite like this. Last Sunday, the Whitecaps were all set to host their first-ever playoff game as a member of the National Women's Hockey League — until the weather prevented the Metropolitan Riveters from arriving on time.
That meant five more days of waiting for the Isobel Cup semifinals, as well as lots of schedule-juggling. It turned out to be only a minor inconvenience. The Whitecaps rolled to a 5-1 victory Friday at Tria Rink, getting two goals from Brandt and a nearly perfect performance from goaltender Amanda Leveille to reach Sunday's championship game against Buffalo.
Brandt, the former Gopher and Olympic gold medalist from Vadnais Heights, scored on a power play at 18 minutes, 16 seconds of the second period and added an empty-net goal. Amanda Boulier, Katie McGovern and Lauren Barnes also scored to push the Whitecaps' win streak to six games. Leveille made 35 saves and had a shutout until 48.8 seconds remaining, when the Riveters' Courtney Burke scored on a five-on-three advantage.
"It was crazy,'' Brandt said of the schedule change. "I was a little bummed, because I was ready to play, and we'd all planned our week out. You just have to change your mind-set.
"It's been an incredible year, to win the league and put ourselves in a position to play on home ice in the championship game. That in itself is a huge accomplishment for us. But I know I can speak for all of us that we're not satisfied. We're not going to be happy unless we can bring an Isobel Cup to Minnesota.''
Riveters forward Amanda Kessel — a former Gopher, two-time Olympian and the leading scorer for the defending Isobel Cup champions — was unable to play because of a lower-body injury. Goaltender Katie Fitzgerald, who played at St. Cloud State, made 36 saves as the Whitecaps outshot the Riveters 41-36.
Buffalo will play for its second league title in three years.
Playing on a Friday night was less than ideal for the Whitecaps. Most players have other jobs, and most worked a full day before coming to the rink.
The extra practice time did give them an advantage, Brandt said. They worked on their defensive-zone coverage and on getting pucks and bodies to the net, two areas that were critical to Friday's victory. While the Riveters got plenty of shots, the Whitecaps limited their high-quality chances, and Leveille got plenty of support from defensemen such as Boulier, Lee Stecklein and Winny Brown.
"That's why we won, because everyone was doing what they had to do and working as hard as they can,'' said Leveille, a former Gopher. "That included sacrificing their bodies at times, getting run over. There was a lot of physicality out there.''
Like the players, the fans adapted to the schedule change, too. The game sold out quickly for its original date, and the 1,200-seat arena was filled to overflowing Friday.
They saw the Whitecaps grab a 2-0 lead in the first period. Boulier scored at 3:36, and McGovern finished a crafty move through traffic by banking a backhander off a skate and past Fitzgerald at 12:24. Brandt made it 3-0 with her second-period goal on the power play.
The Riveters pulled Fitzgerald with about four minutes left, but Brandt quickly scored to put the game out of reach.