The NWHL's inaugural season had its last hurrah on Sunday as the league awards were announced via social media, conducted from the site of the Women's Frozen Four at the University of New Hampshire. Just like in the regular season and the playoffs, the Pride came out on top once again, winning in each of the seven categories. Here's the breakdown of the winners.
Regular Season Winners: Boston Pride
Leading Scorer: Hilary Knight, 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists).
Knight did was she does best for the Pride this season: score, score, score. Combined with Brianna Decker and Jordan Smelker, her line was the most lethal in the league. Her pure skill was unprecedented this season and opposing teams struggled to devise ways to stop her. Imagine the fear in the heart of a goalie when Knight is skating towards them. This is truly a nightmare:
Not only did she lead the Pride in goals during the regular season, she also scored seven goals in the playoffs, including the game-winning penalty shot in the GIF above. Her hat trick in game two of the semifinals was the difference between a 7-4 win and having to face the New York Riveters in overtime. And really, we wouldn't expect anything less from her.
NWHL Foundation Award: Denna Laing
Given to "the player most actively applying the core values of hockey to her community as well as growing and improving hockey culture," Laing was voted the winner of the Foundation Award by the fans. Watching the hockey community, which is often a toxic environment for many fans and rife with controversy and hatred, unite around Laing's cause was truly moving. The NHL and the Bruins each donated $200,000 to Laing and Patrice Bergeron raffled off his personal suite in support of her. In the aftermath, the hockey community seemed like a better place, at least for a little while. Hockey held up one of its own instead of tearing people down. Laing embodied the toughness that hockey players are praised for, not only physically but in her attitude as well. Her life may have been changed by an injury, but it has not been ruined, and it has not changed who she is: a hockey player. This injury could have happened to anyone on the ice that day. Laing herself wrote that she does not want anyone to feel bad for her, and we should instead celebrate her and work towards creating a more unified hockey community. This award reminds us of that.
Best Defenseman: Gigi Marvin (5 goals, 9 assists).
Kacey Bellamy had my vote in this category, and Blake Bolden was who I would've voted for if she had been one of the choices on the list. All three of them were crucial to the Pride's success, with Bellamy bringing her world-class defensive game and ability to assist the offense and Bolden fighting tirelessly along the boards every single game and improving exponentially throughout the season. Bolden also notched two goals during the Pride's playoff run, including the crucial first goal of the Isobel Cup Finals in the down-to-the-wire overtime game.
However, Marvin's offensive ability, stemming from her many years of playing as a forward, makes her a constant threat from any area of the ice and a very complete player. Her versatility was evident every time she crossed the blue line with the puck and left opponents wondering whether she would unleash her slapshot towards the net or set up one of the Pride's outstanding forwards with a sharp and well-planned pass. Next season, I would love if the league kept track of defensive stats (we are pro-#FancyStats here, after all) so then I could tell you how many shots the Pride defense blocked this season. Alas, we don't, so let's just say it was a lot.
Best Goaltender: Brittany Ott...who else?
With 13 wins, a goals against average of 1.94, and a shutout in both the regular season and the playoffs, Ott was the clear winner for best goalie. She went above and beyond what was expected of her the entire season, staying cool under pressure as opposing offenses bombarded her with shots as they attempted to make a comeback. Unfazed, Ott not only made spectacular saves, but provided consistency and stability in the most strenuous situations. According to the NWHL's stats, Ott saved 370 of 400 shots, coming in second in save percentage (.925) to Connecticut's Jaimie Leonoff (.936), who made 410 saves. If the Pride defense wasn't as outstanding as it is, she would have faced 438 shots like Leonoff did, and she would have performed just as well. She dove, she did a split, she got hit with a slapshot and still held onto the puck, and she made a save off her helmet, just to name a few instances of her brilliance. That's why we call her Brilliant Ott.
Perseverance Award: Denna Laing
I voted for the Connecticut Whale's Anya Battaglino in this category, since it was more than likely that Laing would win the Foundation Award and I felt that someone else deserved recognition as well. But with awards like these, none of these players are persevering for the sake of an award or recognition — they're doing rehab for the sake of their health and making choices to improve their own lives. In comparison, an award is just a gold star sticker.
Nana Fujimoto uprooted her life to move from Japan to the United States in hopes that the NWHL would be worth it. Kelley Steadman started out as a practice player for the Beauts and ended up being the team's leading scorer. While injured, Battaglino helped the Whale in any way she could, from making intermission reports on the Cross-Ice Pass livestreams to interacting with fans both on social media and in the stands. Jenny Scrivens juggled working in the league's public relations department — and is always very prompt in replying to e-mails, by the way — with being a goalie. All of these players exemplify "perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to her sport," as the award explanation states. None of these women made these decisions in hopes of winning an award, but all of them, in addition to Laing, should be celebrated for demonstrating that nothing is impossible if you work hard enough.
NWHL MVP: Brianna Decker
In addition to her Isobel Cup Finals MVP, Decker can add league MVP to her list of accolades as well. Like her linemate and co-captain Knight, Decker was spectacular for the Pride this season. Her stickhandling and passing were unmatched. She scored 14 goals, including the only two regular season hat tricks, as well as five postseason goals. Her two goals in the Isobel Cup-winning game gave the Pride the edge over the Beauts in a hard-fought final. I have to add this GIF again because I love this goal and this celly so much.
She and Knight each had nine postseason points and two game-winning goals in the playoffs. Either of them could have been the Isobel Cup MVP or the league MVP, so it's only fair that Decker get MVP since Knight had the slight edge over her for leading scorer. Decker, along with Buffalo's Steadman, was the only player to receive Player of the Week honors twice. She tallied her second hat trick of the season in the 5-3 win over the Connecticut Whale that clinched first place for the Pride. Decker is not only one of the best women's hockey players in the world, she is also a delightful person and always has a smile on her face. She even wrote a blog post for NWHL.co about what it felt like to win the Isobel Cup, which I highly recommend reading, although it makes next season feel very, very far away.
Up next on the NWHL's offseason calendar is the start of the free agency period, which begins May 1 and closes July 31, while the 2016 NWHL Draft will take place on June 18. Whatever else happens between now and then, we'll keep you posted.