Updated: Mar 26
TEMPE, Arizona -- "Oh my god. It was like pure shock," Minnesota Whitecaps forward Natalie Snodgrass told me after the team's first practice at Mullett Arena, the 2023 PHF Isobel Cup Final location.
Snodgrass was talking about Minnesota's win over the Boston Pride in the opening round of the PHF playoffs. Not only did the Minnesota Whitecaps enter the postseason as the fourth and final team to qualify, but they also lost eight straight games to finish the PHF regular season. The 2019 Isobel Cup Champions struggled at times to find the back of the net, as well as protecting their own.
In 24 games, the Whitecaps went 10-11-3, scoring 58 goals and allowing 66. As the fourth seed, the Whitecaps drew the Boston Pride. The back-to-back champions went 19-4-1 and posted a +40 goal differential. Needless to say, the opening round of the Iosbel Cup Playoffs presented a massive challenge for the Whitecaps.
"It was great. Honestly, I think we had so many doubters coming into the game – obviously, how can you not with an eight-game losing streak? So, I think we were just kind of prepared like, whatever happens, happens. Let's go out with a bang," Snodgrass said.
As it turns out, Minnesota likes a challenge.
They swept the Pride in two games and scored nine goals while holding the defending champions to three. That punched their ticket to the third Isobel Cup Final in franchise history (the Whitecaps advanced to the Final in 2020, but the championship game was canceled due to COVID-19).
"Even though we were losing, not all games were bad. So we would play phenomenal, but we'd let up for 10 minutes or so, and then that would hurt us. But we'd continue to grow, and we'd try to focus on some of those areas that we grew in," Whitecaps head coach Ronda Engelhardt told me at Mullett Arena Friday afternoon.
At their best, the Whitecaps are a fast team who can find the back of the net. Their speed, and the heroics of goaltender Amanda Leveille, make them a dangerous team. That said, the postseason requires minimal mistakes, especially on the defensive end.
"I certainly love to hop up in the play, but in these games, you kind of have to reel it in a little bit and just really focus on on defense," Whitecaps defender Amanda Boulier outside the visiting locker room in Mullett Arena.
"One game is completely different than a series. I think what I like about us is, in our first game against Boston, we came out flying," Boulier said. "The teams that win championships are the ones that can do that, and so our body of work in the regular season, while important, doesn't always matter once the trophy is handed out. We hope to really settle in on Sunday and bring that same exact energy and intensity, as we did against Boston."
Although this is a work trip, there is still an opportunity to visit a few sights in Tempe. Snodgrass and Jonna Albers took in some night baseball shortly after landing in Arizona.
Other players have been seen shopping in the neighborhood near Mullett Arena, located on the Arizona State University campus.
"This is my first time in Arizona, and it's amazing," Whitecaps forward Denisa Křížová The rink here is awesome. I actually got a chance to walk around the campus a little bit like it's, it's gorgeous here. So far it's been a great time, and I think I was enjoying it, but we are all excited to drop the puck Sunday.
The mission for this work trip is simple; bring another Isobel Cup back to the State of Hockey. Some players, like Boulier, have won with the Whitecaps before. Boulier also won a title last season with the Boston Pride.
"It'd be really special. Yeah, I mean, it's hard to put it into words," Boulier said about having the opportunity to win another championship. "Every team has a different culture, you know, a different climate and so, every championship is really, really special and to be able to bring the cup back to the State of Hockey would be really meaningful and just use a really awesome experience. So gonna hone in on that visualization," she told me.
"I think it'd be super special to share with, obviously, Minnesota as a state but more specifically, the Richfield community just because they've been super loyal to us with our new home rink," added Snodgrass. "But also, the people who in the past have built this program from where it is today, I think it's just really important for them to see the progress that we've made today too."
Snodgrass, Křížová, Boulier, and the rest of the Minnesota Whitecaps will have their chance to bring the Isobel Cup home after three (or more) periods of hockey tomorrow. The Isobel Cup Final will be held at Mullett Arena at 6:00 pm MT/9:00 pm ET and aired on ESPN2 and TSN.