As the NWHL 2018-19 season has come to close, it’s time to look back on each team. We start with the fifth seed Connecticut Whale.
The Connecticut Whale finished the regular season at the bottom of the NWHL’s standings with a record of 2-12-2. After winning two games against the Metropolitan Riveters in a span of three weeks, the Whale lost their final 10 games of the season and only one of those losses was by a one-goal margin.
With their fifth place finish in the regular season, the Whale faced the Riveters on March 7 in the NWHL’s first postseason play-in game. Despite having two separate one-goal leads in the first period in a must-win game in a hostile building, the Whale ultimately fell to the Riveters by a score of 5-2.
The Whale’s most valuable skater this year was newcomer Kateřina Mrázová. The Czech center led the Whale in goals, primary points, and shots on goal. To give you an idea of how instrumental she was to Connecticut’s offense, consider the fact that she picked up primary points on all four of the Whale’s power play goals this year.
Mrázová also had a goal and a primary assist in the Whale’s 5-2 loss against the Riveters in the playoffs. She was exactly the kind of player that the Whale needed this year after the departure of Kelly Babstock.
On the blue line, veteran defender Shannon Doyle had a true All-Star season. Doyle had eight points (three goals, five assists) in 13 games this season while eating up a ton of minutes on the Whales’ top pair. Doyle, who was not considered much of an offensive threat before this season, had six primary points this year. No other full-time defender on the Whale finished the season with a single primary point.
Between the pipes, Meeri Räisänen had a team-leading .908 save percentage and 3.03 goals against average before her season-ending injury. Those numbers look dramatically better when you consider the fact that she faced an average of 32.09 shots per sixty minutes. Her numbers were a clear cut above the Whale’s other four goaltenders.
The Whale’s roster was in a constant state of flux this year and that did little to help the team play consistent hockey. Things started off on the wrong foot when Pyeongchang Olympian Randi Griffin never reported to the team and snowballed from there. The Whale were hindered by a litany of injuries that pushed their depth to the brink.
Head coach Ryan Equale and the Whale made more mid-season signings than the rest of the league combined. He also got creative with professional try-outs to fill holes in the roster created by injury and travel. By the end of the season the Whale had 27 skaters and five different goaltenders appear in games in the 2018-19 season.
The Whale’s struggles in the offensive zone this year were voluminous. Connecticut scored more than two goals just three times in 17 contests and averaged a league-worst 1.38 goals per game. They also had the worst power play (7.3 percent) and the worst shot-rate (20.25 shots per-game) in the league.
Understandably, Equale chose to spread out his most skilled players across two lines rather than having a stacked top line of Mrázová, Emily Fluke, and Michelle Löwenhielm. But that decision appeared to contribute to the Whale’s inability to create high-quality scoring chances and deliver on the power play, which in turn put an unbelievable amount of pressure on the Whale’s goaltenders. It was a real catch-22 for Equale. He simply didn’t have the pieces he needed to compete against the rest of the league.
The Whale broke from the pack by dressing five defenders for much of the season, but they had about as much luck in the defensive zone as they had in the offensive zone.
Veterans Doyle and Jordan Brickner both stood out on Connecticut’s blue line, but Brickner missed five games this year— at least some of which were due to injuries. Despite the injuries, shake-ups, and experimentation, the Whale earned a reputation as a relentless team in their own zone. They needed that work ethic because they were under siege all season long.
Connecticut allowed more shots per game than every other team in the league. However, they managed to finish with a solid 84.2 percent success rate on the penalty kill and were credited with the most blocked shots in the league according to NWHL.zone’s finite data.
Grading the Whale’s goaltending is difficult because of how much chaos there was in Connecticut’s goal crease. With that being said, Räisänen earned every bit of an “A+” for her play before her injury. She was Connecticut’s most valuable player for the majority of the season and kept the team in games they sometimes had no business being in.
After the Whale lost their Finnish netminder, NWHL veteran Shenae Lundberg and rookie Erin O’Neil shared the crease for the remainder of the season. Lundberg finished with an .869 save percentage in 140 minutes of regular season hockey and O’Neil finished with an .855 save percentage in 100 minutes. In the playoffs, O’Neil got the nod against the Riveters. She stopped 22 of the 26 shots she faced in the Whale’s 5-2 loss.
Together, Lundberg and O’Neil’s combined performance was underwhelming, but not unexpected given how difficult their task was. Both goaltenders performed admirably and made big saves when the Whale needed them.
It was a rough year for the Whale, but arguably a successful one despite their 2-12-2 record. At the beginning of the year it was clear that the Whale were going to have a rough go in 2018-19. However, the Whale found a way to surprise us several times this year and definitely took some strides in the right direction this year before injuries unraveled their chances of getting past the Riveters in the play-in game.
In an interview with Erica Ayala of The IX Newsletter, Mrázová mentioned that there were rumors that the Whale might not be back in Connecticut — although the NWHL told the IX Newsletter that there are no plans to relocate the franchise. But, until we hear otherwise, the Whale will continue to swim in Connecticut.
Hopefully the Whale will be able to bring back as much of the core group of Fluke, Doyle, Brickner, Mrázová, and Löwenhielm as possible. Equale definitely had success with thinking outside the box and bringing in international talent this year. It’s a tactic that Equale or his successor should continue in the upcoming offseason, in addition to finding more rookies who can contribute like Nina Rodgers.
The bottom line is that the Whale need to be a much deeper and more talented club if they want a chance at winning the Isobel Cup in 2020.
An earlier version of this post had Mrazova listed as the assist leader while it was actual Emily Fluke who lead the team in assists. We’ve updated it accordingly.