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2018-19 NWHL Preview: Connecticut Whale

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Can an injection of international talent ignite last season’s sparks of promise?

Al Saniuk

In this installment of The Ice Garden’s 2018–19 NWHL season preview, let us consider the Connecticut Whale. Of the four teams that have been part of the league since its founding, this is the only one that has yet to win a championship — or even a playoff round. Is this the year that it all changes?

Last Season

There’s no delicate way to say it — the Connecticut Whale did not have a good year. Their 3–11–2 record in 2017–18 put them at last place in the league standings for the second season in a row, and they lost to the eventual Isobel Cup champions in the playoff semifinal. That game (like most meetings with the Metropolitan Riveters) was closer than the 5–0 score ... at least through the first two periods, until the Rivs poured on the offense in the final frame like they tended to do throughout last season.

Offense was the weak link for the Whale, who had a –29 goal differential for the season. When your top scorer (Emily Fluke) racks up just four goals and seven assists in 16 games, you know your team is having some trouble.

Emily Fluke takes a shot in a game against the Boston Pride, Feb. 2, 2018.
Al Saniuk

Offseason Moves

Scoring: Kelly Babstock’s decision to sign with the Buffalo Beauts was a big deal for the Beauts and for the Whale. For three seasons, the forward had been one of Connecticut’s points leaders (last year she had four goals and five assists, for nine points, just behind Fluke’s 11). She’s the highest-scoring Canadian player in NWHL history and leads the Whale in all-time goals, assists, points, games played, shots on goal, and penalty minutes. She leaves a hole where the team’s offensive strength should be.

Goaltending: The Whale’s net will be minded by a crew of all-new faces. Minnesota-born Sydney Rossman left for the Minnesota Whitecaps, and the team signed a group of goalies who are new to the league — Russian national team goalie Maria Sorokina, two-time All-American Sam Walther, and (after weeks of waiting and wondering) Finnish Olympian Meeri Räisänen.

Sorokina’s experience includes several seasons in the Zhenskaya Hockey League and appearances at three Women’s World Championships, including for Russia’s 2016 bronze medal win. Walther just graduated from Hamilton College, and her resume is not as full, but she helped lead her team to the NESCAC quarterfinals two years in a row and was named NESCAC Women’s Hockey Player of the Year. And our own Meredith Foster made the case for Räisänen several weeks ago.

Coaching: Head coach Ryan Equale didn’t go anywhere, but he’ll be joined behind the bench by a new face ... sort of. After two seasons on the Whale blue line, Cydney Roesler is taking on a new role as both a player and an assistant coach for the team. She knows the Whale pretty well, and the team’s returning players (about half of the roster) know her.

Three Players to Watch

Sure, there are a lot of Olympic medalists on the Pride and Whitecaps rosters, but Connecticut will not be without international talent, even beyond the crease.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 5 - Korea v Japan
Randi Griffin battles Japanese players during the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Randi Griffin

Griffin, who was born in North Carolina, is Korean-American and played for South Korea at the Women’s World Championships in 2017 and 2018. As a member of the unified Korean team at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, she scored the host country’s first goal — ever — in Olympic competition. Previously, Griffin attended and played hockey at Harvard.

Michelle Löwenhielm

The first Swedish national team player to sign with an NWHL team is a forward with NCAA and international experience. She played for Sweden — at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and Worlds — and, with AIK, won the SDHL (then Rikserrien) championship in 2013. She also played four years at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. As Foster reported for The Ice Garden, Löwenhielm’s former coach described her as “‘playful, technical, and an excellent goal scorer,’ all much-needed traits for a team coming off a less-than-ideal season.”

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 - Switzerland v Sweden
Michelle Löwenhielm scores during the bronze medal game of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

Kateřina Mrázová

The Czech forward, who has a reputation as an extraordinary playmaker, just graduated from the University of Minnesota–Duluth. Before that Mrázová was a member of the Czech national team at the 2013 Women’s World Championship. And she even has professional playing experience in North America already — Mrázová was the first European player to win the CWHL’s Clarkson Cup, as part of the 2012–13 Boston Blades team.

Three Games to Watch

Oct. 7 — Connecticut Whale vs Buffalo Beauts

The Whale open their season at home against a Buffalo team that’s loaded for bear (and, presumably, other large land- or water-based mammals). These teams’ preseason meeting on Sept. 23 ended with a 7–2 win for Buffalo.

Nov. 18 — Connecticut Whale at Metropolitan Riveters

This past spring, the Riveters shut out the Whale en route to their first Isobel Cup championship win. Connecticut returns to New Jersey for a playoff rematch and a chance to show what they’ve learned since March.

Jan. 13 — Connecticut Whale vs Minnesota Whitecaps

The Whale won’t get to see the league’s newest team until 2019. They host Minnesota on a Sunday afternoon — and then travel to St. Paul the following weekend for two games at TRIA Rink. The Whitecaps will have played the rest of the league at least twice by that point, so there will be plenty of tape for Connecticut to study.

Predictions

There’s a lot of uncertainty ahead for this team after three seasons of disappointment. But players are saying the “right” things about their determination to win, and the second half of last season suggested that there is a foundation of talent on the roster. Is it going to be enough? It’s not the safest bet, to be sure. The Beauts, Riveters, and Whitecaps all look really strong going into this season.

Perhaps, if the Whale can let bad bounces roll off their backs and fight their way to a couple of wins early on, they’ll be able to improve on recent seasons. But expressing determination when speaking to fans or the media is one thing. Digging in when your team is down by a goal or two is a whole other matter.

Final Thoughts

The Whale did a bit of moving around in the first couple of NWHL seasons (as did all of the “founding four” teams to some extent). The fact that they’re returning to Terry Conners Rink and bringing back the same head coach for the 2018–19 season should provide a bit of consistency for a team that’s trying to build on its meager past successes.

And there are a few successes to build upon, as noted by Mike Murphy: “The good news is that Connecticut was buoyed by a handful of youngsters last season that could help to carry the torch if they return. Emily Fluke, Amanda Boulier, and Sam Donovan ... all stood out on last season’s roster.”

Fluke and Donovan, at least, are back with the Whale this season. And so is veteran Roesler in her player–coach position. Maybe this will be the year when the Whale find that perfect blend of determined veterans and enthusiastic new players.