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Q&A with CT Whale Head Coach Heather Linstad

On the heels of a 5-2 loss to the Boston Pride, Head Coach Heather Linstad weighs in on the state of the Whale in advance of their first home game.

Kelly Babstock(left), releasing a shot in a 5-2 loss to Boston has “had a tremendous season,” in the words of Connecticut Head Coach Heather Linstad.
Al Saniul

Zach Pearce: Obviously, regarding last week’s game against Boston, the result wasn’t what the team wanted, but breaking the goalless drought was a plus, and tying the game in the second period was a plus. What did you see from your team that you liked, and what did you see from your team that needs improvement in order to break this losing streak?

Heather Linstad: I think you’re right, it’s certainly a confidence booster that we got on the scoreboard. So that’s a big thing. I think we’ve gone away from what we were doing well at the beginning of the season as a team. We have to play better defense. We’re giving up too many odd-man rushes. And when it’s in our zone defensively…we’ve got to make plays to get it out and get on offense as quickly as possible. And we were doing those things.

The other thing we’ve gotten away from was creating scoring chances by really being aggressive on the forecheck and creating turnovers. Those are the things. Technically, it comes down to us really getting more consistent in our systems and not thinking we’re going to play a wide open game. The league is tough. There is talent everywhere. You can tell me that Boston has the most talent, but if you go in the history of sport, it’s not the team that has the most talent, it’s the team that plays the best systems and gets the most out of their abilities that usually has the success.

I give [goaltender] Shenae [Lundberg] credit in some situations where there were a couple of breakaways. She kept us in the game.

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ZP: It’s interesting that you talk about the systems, because I think at the beginning of the year, at least from my outsider’s perspective, the team was trying to build around

its speed and its skill and springing play through the neutral zone. I wonder if you could talk about that—how you developed the systems around your personnel?

HL: You can’t build a team of all finesse players; somebody’s got to do the dirty work. I think we do have a good balance. And it’s the same thing, we have a good balance of people — you don’t have to use the same players, I don’t think, on the penalty kill as you do on the power play. That saves your legs for when you need a goal or whatnot.

I will say that we’ve hit a few injuries and a some players are a little more banged up. And I think that comes with this league, as well. You can get off to a good start but if you get banged up—we don’t really have a training camp. I think we’ll get better as we get healthier and we get in a little bit better shape...those are the kinds of things that we kind of have to fight through and grind through.

We’ve got three games now before the break. We’ve got to rally the troops and bunker down and do the best we can. Everybody knows that for the last two games, we don’t have some of our scorers. We won’t have Kelli Stack , we won’t have Dana Trivigno, we won’t have Haley Skarupa. [All three are on USA Hockey’s Winter Training Camp Roster.] We have to build around that—and I think that goes back to my other point—we can still win games; we’ve got to play a little bit smarter defensively and we’ve got to make things happen offensively.

ZP: Are there any players that you’re pinpointing to get a little bit more ice time or [to] get some looks on the power play?

HL: Yeah, I think you saw that on Saturday. Micaela Long, she’s a veteran, she was on the power play the other day. Sam Faber, [too]. So, some of the veterans—they can move the puck—you’re going to see them a little bit more. And they have good hockey sense and knowledge of the game. We’ve got to get the Nicoles, Kosta and Connery, just to shoot more. They’re goal scorers from their college days and they can put the puck in the net. Leading the charge will be Kelly Babstock. I think she’s had a tremendous season, but we’re just going to have to lean on her a little bit more now. I think Kelly Babstock has been a good spark plug for this team so far.

ZP: Do you, then, lean on the more veterans players—I’m thinking Molly Engstrom, for example—as a voice in the room? Because you do have a lot of rookies in the league, although they’re obviously not rookies of the game, they’re rookies as professionals.

HL: Sam Faber and Micaela Long, and Molly [Engstrom] fall into that [category], Nicole Stock falls into that. They have to be the voice of getting them all to be on the same page.

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ZP: It’s clearly not ideal to have the first home game so late [Saturday, vs. Buffalo]. I was wondering if you could talk about the behind the scenes with that—as much as you know of how the league scheduled that, why it was so late, and how you and the team have been dealing with being road warriors this entire season?

HL: I’m usually full disclosure on many things—if I had an answer for you on why that happened, I would let you know. But I have no clue [laughs] how it got scheduled there and somebody said, you know, it’s going to be okay. So no, I don’t know. But those are the kind of things you play through. And I’m really hoping that we have the home ice advantage. If we love our rink, it’s certainly going to be great for us going down the stretch. It is what it is, so we’ve dealt with that. I think that it’s going to be nice to play at home.

ZP: I was a season ticket holder last year at Chelsea Piers [in Stamford, CT]. It was a great atmosphere there. Even going around, wearing the Whale hat, people were generally interested. How much of your job right now is drumming up interest in a different community, different part of Connecticut [and] one that is obviously closer to Quinnipiac?

HL: Especially with Quinnipiac…that’s kind of the goal because one of the reasons is that Northford [Ice Pavilion] can host more tickets, more seats. And you’re right, the environment was terrific down there. So the onus is on the staff to drum up business, get people interested. I think we’ve done a fairly good job. But again—you just said it—when hockey season starts, everybody’s on board.

I do like that we can seat more so we have the opportunity for more ticket sales. We have a lot of people who have to commute. it’s a little bit better in that respect for our athletes, as well.

ZP: Out of curiosity, who makes the longest commute?

HL: I would say it’s the Skarupa, Trivigno, Mangene, Kaliya Johnson group.

ZP: Coming from Massachusetts?

HL: Yes.

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ZP: [Former Whale standout] Shiann Darkangelo comes back to town with Buffalo [on Saturday]. How do you look to shut her down, shut down some of the bigger guns on the Beauts?

HL: Again, being stronger in our defensive zone…you have to win your one-on-one battles. If they transition quickly, then it’s on the forwards to get back and match up. It’s not going to be one person stopping a player like Darkangelo; it’s going to be better systems in our defensive zone. I am really excited about our defense…they’re very good on getting stick on puck and keeping them to the outside. Truthfully, our defense has been very good on one-on-ones; we just kind of break down when we’re in our own zone.

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ZP: You’ve been going with two goalies so far this year. Without tipping your hand, what’s your plan for this weekend? And what have you seen so far from Shenae and Nicole Stock?

HL: Certainly, I think both have done a very good job. They both have different skill sets. They give other teams a different look all the time—we’ve got the lefty catch [Lundberg] and the righty catch [Stock]. You can throw a different look at teams, and that usually throws them off a little bit. I think both of them have had their good games—real good games—and some shaky times. But they match up with what our team has done. We can play a great first period and then you would think a different team showed up in the second period…they’ve kind of suffered getting barrages of shots when we break down defensively.