At the risk of being hyperbolic, it’s always interesting when the Whale get together with the Beauts. Four of their six regular season meetings last year ended in one-goal games. Three were decided in overtime. The others? A 5-3 win, and a comparative blowout in the second ever game of the franchise, 5-2. (The Whale posted a 6-0 regular season record against the Beauts in 2015-2016).
Of course, the playoffs were a different story. The only one-goal game was the 4-3 (soul-crushing) loss at Chelsea Piers that propelled the Beauts to the Isobel Cup Finals. The Whale opened this season by dropping yet another one-goal game to the Beauts, this time 5-4.
Not so fast...
You would be excused, then, if you exhaled a sigh of relief upon the mellifluous flow of Twitter updates that displayed a 4-0 Whale advantage within the first 4:32 of the 1st.
You would also be excused if your fingernails were chewed to the cuticles by the end of the 7-6 affair that the Beauts twice narrowed to that all-familiar one-goal gap. Regression to the mean is mean, man.
First on the line chart, first in our hearts
The Whale escaped by the skin of their fins in large part because of the continued revelatory play of their first line, two thirds of whom have earned NWHL Player of the Week honors.
Haley Skarupa was last week’s recipient. (You’re on the clock, Nicole Connery!)
The scoresheet filled quickly in just four and a half minutes into the first.
Connery, Skarupa, Trivigno, Skarupa (again).
Add in three helpers for Stack and two for Connery. Four and a half minutes. By the end of the first, Stack added a goal, Skarupa an assist. Amanda Leveille was hardly at fault; defensive breakdowns allowed the Whale to execute the gameplan: send Stack behind the net, Skarupa to the slot. The Whale looked like self-professed coffee addicts; the Beauts were in need of a few extra shots (on goal and of espresso).
The Beauts showed signs of coming to life, however. Their top line, featuring former Whale Shiann Darkangelo, began to exploit their speed advantage. Emily Janiga connected on a breakaway goal [gif] after the Beauts failed to convert on a powerplay. The Whale’s new-look third line of Elena Orlando (now wearing #14), Celeste Brown (scratched for game 2) and stalwart Sam Faber were outpaced. But it didn’t matter, or at least it appeared not to. Stack answered back at 16:24 with a (color-changing?) tally of her own.
Not to be discounted were the d-pair of Ivana Bilic (1A) and Cydney Roesler (1A). The rookies generated consistent offensive pressure in the first, helping spring forwards who pounced on loose pucks in the Beauts’ end. All told, the first five Whale goals came from within the circles, with an increasingly verklempt Leveille left to dry.
Between periods, Anya Battaglino joined the broadcast. (She’s got a serious future in the profession). Her words summed up the period nicely:
“[The Whale is] getting gritty in front of the net.”
“It’s fire out there right now.”
What’s that? Yes, I think the Whale should make an Anya-emoji app. $2.99 sounds reasonable.
But she also warned of a rejuvenated, angry Beauts squad, perhaps dredging bad memories from last ye—
Hark! The dasher of old Whale dreams! Brianne McLaughlin’s relief appearance began in the second period. The former Ninja Warrior stopped only seven of eight(!) through the second and third. By contrast, Connecticut threw 14 at Leveille. Buffalo, by contrast, managed only 13 shots after the first. Shenae Lundberg, who struggled with rebounds all night, was subject to a rejuvenated Beauts offense. Skeats (another old foe) scored at 9:10 to cut the lead to 5-2 [gif]. Kelley Steadman (what was that about old nemeses?) provided perhaps the most significant goal of the evening, scoring with 27 seconds left in the period. It was a microcosm of the type of goal the Whale don’t want to allow:
- Dana Trivigno railroads Harrison Browne, (Down Goes Browne?) drawing a delayed penalty...
- ...thus losing her positioning, allowing Darkangelo to find a Steadman with space...
- ...while two dependable defenders are out of position: Shannon Doyle was caught in no-man’s-land and Molly Engstrom reverses course.
- And, oh yeah, Steadman can shoot it.
With the third shaping up to conclude another Whale-Beauts barnburner, Battaglino predicted the winner would be the team that could keep up the pace.
“[The winner will be] who’s not going to put their foot on the brake.”
Steadman Can shoot it, remember?
She did again, narrowing the lead to 5-4 at 7:27 in the third, after Kourtney Kunichika backhanded a wraparound that bounced around Lundberg’s crease.
It wasn’t just Connery’s tremendous block on a Megan Bozek shot in the last minute of the game that saved the game for the Whale. Doyle and Engstrom rebounded to provide better gap control. Meagan Mangene and Jordan Brickner logged tough minutes against Browne, Kunichika, and Shiann Darkangelo.
Connery's game saving block against Bozek's howitzer: pic.twitter.com/bx3ZzCO4cE— zach pearce (@molemanfilms) October 28, 2016
Brickner gave the Whale more breathing room at 12:39, opening up a 6-4 lead. Naturally, the Beauts answered back. (It sure looked like Skarupa tipped it in front, but I guess she’ll settle for a four point night). Corrine Buie scored just over a minute later, wristing a shot from the top of the right circle that eluded a frustrated Lundberg.
But with the first line hanging tough and the second line of Kosta-Trivigno-Babstock generating a dominating forecheck, the Beauts never found the back of the net again. (Babstock sealed it with an empty-netter).
Despite the highs and lows of Sunday’s win, expect the Whale to come out with a similar game plan. Both the first and second lines are well-balanced and speedy; they’ll need to keep up a hounding forecheck without burning themselves out. The key matchup may be the third forward line: I would guess that Micaela Long gets back in there with Sam Faber. Heather Linstad will have to trust whoever is centering that line (Elena Orlando?) with some serious defensive responsibility to mitigate any mismatches that the Whale have against the Pride.
Will Kaliya Johnson return from injury? Will Battaglino move from the booth to the blueline to spell Shannon Doyle?
Regardless, the Whale will have to be okay with playing that old Edmonton Oilers mindset: allow five, score six. If the first three games are any indication, they will be at home with just that sort of high flying system.
Goal Leaders: #1 Skarupa (5); #3 Babstock (3)
Assist Leaders: #1-4 (tied, with 4): Babstock, Connery, Skarupa, Stack
Save Percentage: #1 Stock (.943)