Photo – Ryan Ohanesian
The Riveters’ new captain, Ashley Johnston, told me a few weeks ago that “every team should be afraid to play against us.” On Sunday night, the Rivs delivered, handing an unexpected loss to the undefeated Boston Pride. After succumbing 7-1 in their previous contest, even a close game would have been an improvement. But close wasn’t good enough for the Riveters, a rapidly-gelling team who have left their slow start far behind.
The change began between the pipes. Nana Fujimoto played one of the most brilliant games I’ve ever seen from a goaltender, particularly one who fills only 5 feet 4 inches of her net. She moved laterally like lightning, and no matter how much chaos went down in the crease, Fujimoto came up with the puck. The crowd chanted “NA-NA!” as she snapped up shots, demonstrating a quickness with her glove we had yet to see this season, as well as remarkable rebound control. “She’s a world-class goalie for a reason,” Johnston pointed out. “She saved everybody’s butt a couple times at least. She’s a phenomenal goalie, and it’s a real honor playing with her.”
But the improvements extended way beyond the crease. Two goals in fourteen seconds from Madison Packer and Beth Hanrahan certainly didn’t hurt. Taylor Holze and Celeste Brown made major contributions on offense. With the addition of Canadian Sydney Kidd, who had been held up by visa issues, the Riveters were finally able to roll six defenders. They also improved the penalty kill, blocking shots, working a tighter box and showing better awareness of when to commit. The Pride rely on their speed, but the Rivs refused to allow the fast, flawless zone entries that overwhelmed them just a few weeks ago. They fought hard in the neutral zone, breaking up set plays and creating space to play their own game.
So what is the Riveters’ game, exactly? It may be too soon to tell – in a good way. Even coach Chad Wiseman couldn’t say for sure. “We’re getting better every week; I’d like to see where we’re going to be eight weeks from now.” Conditioning has clearly made a difference. Johnston admitted that, at the start of the season, the team was not in shape to play three periods of fast hockey. “All of us realized that we needed to step up our conditioning. This is faster than most of the college games. It was a bit of an adjustment … we had our growing pains, but we’re ready now.”
They look it. As Wiseman observed, “we played like a team that’s been winning a lot of games” – not bad for a group that, until last night, had never even held a lead. They head north next week for Boston’s long-awaited home opener, and two key players missing from this matchup, Brianna Decker and Lyudmila Belyakova, will be back in the mix. Asked how her team might change the result next time, Boston’s Jordan Smelker replied, “by playing our game; beating them with our speed.” I’m guessing the Rivs will be ready.