For much of the first three months of the 2019-20 NWHL season, rookie goaltender Brooke Wolejko watched from the bench while Sonjia Shelly enjoyed the lion’s share of the Connecticut Whale’s starts. Now, with just two games left in the regular season, Wolejko has taken over as the team’s starter and has Whale fans believing that anything is possible just ahead of the Play-In game on March 6 against the Buffalo Beauts.
It’s important to note that Shelly was not the reason for the Whale’s early struggles — to the tune of a 12-game losing streak to start the season — but Connecticut reached new heights once Wolejko established herself as head coach Colton Orr’s go-to starter.
SheStats Spotlight— SheStats (@SheStats) February 26, 2020
Brooke Wojelko (@Wolj_e)
In her last 5 appearances, the Connecticut native has faced 39 shots/game and only let up 13 goals.
That's good for a .933 Save %.@CTWhale_NWHL@NWHL
Photo taken from https://t.co/P14am5eTdk pic.twitter.com/SoxWVIXjqM
With just two games remaining in the Whale’s regular season, Wolejko has a .917 save percentage, a 6.40 GSAA (goals saved above average), a 3.40 GAA, and is averaging more than 37 saves per-60 minutes of play. By far, she has faced the most difficult workload among the league’s starters, averaging a staggering 40.99 SA60.
To give that number some context, Whale great Jaimie Leonoff faced an NWHL-record 43.9 SA60 in the 2015-16 season. The only goalie to finish in the same neighborhood since Leonoff set the standard for excellence in the league’s inaugural season is Amanda Leveille, who faced an average of 39.4 SA60 in the 2016-17 season. But Leveille — a two-time Isobel Cup champion and a former Goaltender of the Year winner — finished that season with an .890 Sv%; Wolejko has a .917 Sv%.
Yeah, “Woah-lejko” is right.
#NWHL goalie leaders in GSAA/60 (all situations) and their SA60:— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) February 27, 2020
Lovisa Selander | 1.004 (27.93 SA60)
Amanda Leveille | .928 (31.02 SA60)
Brooke Wolejko | .588 (40.99 SA60)
Victoria Hanson | .403 (24.37 SA60)
one of these workloads is not like the others
Since December — the first month she started in two consecutive games for the Whale — Wolejko has a .919 Sv%, including a jaw-dropping .938 Sv% in her last four starts against the Boston Pride’s nearly unstoppable offense. Yes, the very same Pride team that averaged 3.71 even-strength goals per-game and out-shot opposing teams by an average of 17.08 shots per-game this year.
In those four starts against Boston, Wolejko averaged 48.75 saves per-game and turned in the goaltending performance of the season when she stopped 56 shots through 65 minutes of hockey on Dec. 28, eventually losing 2-1 in the shootout.
In retrospect, it was Wolejko’s performance in that game that shattered the Whale’s identity as the lovable losers of the league. Since she stood in defiance of the Pride in late December, willing her team into sudden death and the shootout, the Whale have not looked like easy prey. While it’s true that they have gone 2-7-0 since that pivotal battle, their struggles as a team have seemingly halved. With Wolejko in the blue paint, the Whale know they just need to score two goals and they can beat anyone — including the mighty Pride. They also know they can count on her to erase at least a few high-danger scoring chances each and every time she appears between the pipes.
Prior to the 2019-20 season, Wolejko’s last regular action was during the 2017-18 season with SUNY-Plattsburgh in NCAA D-III. That year, she led all D-III goaltenders with a .962 Sv% to go along with a record of 10-2-1. In that same season, Metropolitan Riveters’ starter Sam Walther earned a .960 Sv% for Hamilton College, though it’s worth mentioning that Wolejko faced 25.08 SA60 that year (Walther faced 26.99 SA60) — a far cry from the ever-rising tide of shots the Connecticut native has faced in her first pro season.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Whale or even the NWHL to appreciate what Wolejko has accomplished this year. She earned a .900 Sv% as a freshman at St. Lawrence, but found herself stuck in a timeshare in her sophomore season behind freshman sensation Grace Harrison. She started in just three games as a junior before heading to SUNY-Plattsburgh where she shared the spotlight with Kassi Abbott.
Even if Wolejko gets shelled this weekend against the defending Isobel Cup champion Whitecaps, she has proven something to herself and to the hockey world. She is just 26 saves shy of tying Nicole Stock’s franchise record and only maybe a few dozen of her 409 saves could be called easy. When the Whale have bent and buckled under sustained pressure from the opposition this year, Wolejko has refused to break.
On average, Connecticut has a -10 shot differential per-game this year. Having a goaltender who can keep them in games where they are being dominated in shots and scoring chances is invaluable. It’s not a stretch to say that the Whale might still be winless without Wolejko. It’s also not a stretch to suggest that Connecticut would have at least twice as many wins if the team began the season with the roster it has today in late February.
Together, she and Walther have changed our expectations for NCAA D-III goalies and our perception of their talent. All Wolejko and Walther needed to prove themselves at this level was a real opportunity to prove what they can do. With the close of the 2019-20 season just a few days away, Wolejko has also proven herself to be a goalie Connecticut can be proud of.
All data courtesy of nwhl.zone, USCHO.com, HockeyEastOnline.com, and the author’s own tracking.
Disclosure: the author of this article is currently employed by the NWHL.