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Whale’s Speed, Goaltending Key in First Win

New-look Whale not sinking under pressure

Kelli Stack notched an assist as the Whale’s first line dominated. [Pat McCarthy]
Pat McCarthy

Nicole Stock may not be allowed to officially don an “A,” but the Whale assistant captain and goaltender earned her team a tangible “W” on Sunday afternoon at the Barnabas Health Hockey House in Newark. The Whale’s 4-2 victory did more than spoil the Riveters’ home opener; it posed a difficult—though welcome—question about Connecticut’s goaltending.

Big Saves and Storms Weathered

While it is more than likely that the Whale will continue to deploy a capable goaltending tandem of Shenae Lundberg and Stock, it was the Brown University graduate who came up big against the Riveters, stopping 33 of 35 shots en route to her first win of the season. She kicked out all 13 of New York’s third period shots to hold the lead, and to the likely relief of the Whale bench, to avoid a repeat of the opening night 5-4 loss to the Beauts.

Where Connecticut failed last Sunday—surrendering three unanswered third period goals to squander a 4-2 lead—they succeeded against New York. No save was bigger than Stock’s sprawling, point-blank stop of a Michelle Picard one-timer at 6:45 of the third.

The save re-injected life into the quick-moving Whale offense, which thereafter continued to pepper Riveters goaltender Katie Fitzgerald (34 saves). The Riveters would not register another shot for another eight minutes.

First Line Delivers

With Amanda Kessel and Janine Weber out for the Riveters, the Whale’s top line was often deployed at a mismatch. Rookie wingers Nicole Connery (one goal) and Haley Skarupa (two assists) combined with center Kelli Stack (one assist) to account for 10 of the Whale’s 38 shots. Skarupa built on her magnificent NWHL debut (three goals, four points), contributing capably on the power play and penalty kill while consistently pushing play through the neutral zone. Most impressive were the trio’s quick breakout and oppressive pressure in the Riveters’ zone. Despite some defensive breakdowns—an inevitability given the Whale’s propensity to play a high-risk/high-reward offensive style—the first line’s play should allay fears of matching up against the league’s best.

Skarupa ’16

The one-time Riveters draft pick wasted no time burnishing her rookie credentials. Skarupa sports an early league lead in all three offensive major categories (3G, 3A, 6 P). The reigning NWHL player of the week is good enough to make you believe that this was no accident:

Quick Start, Fast Play

Both teams jumped out of the gate, matching the energy of the sellout crowd—a first for the Riveters. The Whale’s quick transition game was on display from the outset.

But once both teams settled into a track meet, mistakes were amplified. Shannon Doyle’s blocked point shot turned into a 3-on-2 that Miye D’Oench ultimately batted home for a 1-0 lead.

The Riveters would not lead for long.

Ko(n)sta(nt) Pressure

The offseason departures of Shiann Darkangelo and Kaleigh Fratkin prompted the Whale to re-imagine an offensive attack that excelled for most of the 2015-16 regular season before sputtering in the playoffs.

The new first line appears dominant, but it will be those second and third trios that will play a determining role in the team’s regular season success. In turn, new additions to the offense (even those not named Skarupa) executed the team’s mandate to press play with speed and forechecking.

None was more visible than Nicole Kosta, the rookie out of (where else?) Quinnipiac. Flanking Dana Trivigno and Kelly Babstock on the second line, Kosta’s relentless energy helped produce the equalizer. On an abbreviated power play, Kosta dug out a rebound that Katie Fitzgerald could not cover. Connery tapped it by the rookie goaltender for her first career NWHL goal.

With the momentum fully tilted toward the Whale, Kosta followed up her own rebound to stake the Whale to 2-1 lead with 3:04 remaining in the first frame. Courtney Burke’s first career goal (a turnaround beauty, no less) knotted the game in the dying seconds of the period.

Whale Wheels

Whatever message Head Coach Heather Linstad delivered to her team between periods, it likely included the directive to “keep skating.” Indeed, the Whale’s quickness in the second led to an early goal. Skarupa (there’s that name again) motored around Fitzgerald’s net before backhanding a no-look pass to a pinching Molly Engstrom. The Whale captain snapped it high blocker side for a lead the team would not relinquish. After the Riveters’ Gabby Figueroa failed to convert on a penalty shot, Kelly Babstock added the Whale’s fourth tally to the ledger later in the period. The goal was generated on a quick break facilitated by Skarupa (yup, her again).

What’s Next?

Despite a mounting comeback in the third, the Riveters could not matched the sustained energy of the Whale. To be sure, the flip side of the dazzling Whale offense was some ill-advised passes. But if the Whale intend to play a track meet every game, they may just have the personnel to pull it off. They’ll have to be sure to get outstanding goaltending. It would be hard to imagine Stock not getting the start against Buffalo on the 26th. Looks like we’re in for a fun goaltender competition.

The Whale’s defensive pairings generated ample offense through quick-strike passing, but it took at least a period for them to settle into a rhythm. The defense will be well-served if the injured Kaliya Johnson returns next game; her presence will allow Linstad, at the very least, to save the legs of top two defensemen Cydney Roesler and Jordan Brickner.

Odds and Ends

  • Elena Orlando, a practice player, made her season debut. The former Riveter centered Micaela Long and Sam Faber while wearing Johnson’s #10, not her listed #14
  • The red and green jerseys looked good on the stream, especially on in-tight shots. Despite Twitter’s insistence that it looked like Christmas on ice, the league may want to learn from the NFL’s mistake; color-on-color jerseys can pose a problem for colorblind fans.