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2021 NWHL Season Preview: Connecticut Whale

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Is this finally the year the Whale make a run?

Pat McCarthy/The Ice Garden

The Connecticut Whale finally look poised and ready for a legit run at the Isobel Cup. But is their massive roster overhaul enough to get over the hump?

Five Factors

  • Please Score | The Whale averaged 1.625 goals-for per game last season. For reference, the fourth-best team, the Metropolitan Riveters, averaged 2.92. Connecticut did not have a double-digit goal scorer and only had two players reach so much as five. They’ve addressed the problem by bringing in some noted playmakers up front, like Alyssa Wohlfeiler (16 points in 14 games last season) and second-overall pick Kayla Friesen.
  • Defensive Reinforcements | Connecticut’s blue liners have historically been limited in their ability to move the puck up the ice. Shannon Doyle is capable, but she simply can’t be expected to block unprecedented numbers of shots and lead the charge in the same shift. Though the Whale will be without five-year vet Jordan Brickner this season, they thankfully have bolstered their defensive corps with former University of New Hampshire captain Victoria Howran (a 2020 second-round draft pick) and former PWHPA member Maggie LaGue. Both are far more mobile and skilled in maneuvering up ice than previous units have been, hopefully alleviating some of the responsibilities that previously had been heaped on Doyle.
  • The Brooke Wall | Brooke Wolejko is a dark horse for Goaltender of the Year. When the Whale were getting badly outshot and clinging to life in 2019–20, Wolejko kept them in games they had no business being in. She earned both regular season wins — one in in overtime and one in a shootout — plus Connecticut’s 5–3 playoff win over Buffalo. With a young defensive crew in front of her, she’ll need to be the backbone of the team. Quinnipiac graduate Abbie Ives will serve as backup.
  • Sharpen the Special Teams | Connecticut’s penalty kill performed markedly better once head coach Colton Orr arrived in November. Their positioning was worlds better; all that was missing was the proper personnel. Connecticut went nine for 10 on the kill in the Isobel Cup Playoffs, and were one for six on the power play — a number which, shockingly, led the league. Look for Emma Vlasic to make an impact on an improved special teams unit. She led the team with 9 goals in the regular season, two of which came on the advantage.
  • The Youth Movement | What makes the Whale so much fun is their complete and utter unpredictability when it comes to strategy. A good chunk of their projected key performers are rookies born in 1997 or 1998. Nicole Guagliardo is a wild card after a successful senior season at Adrian College (DIII). Connecticut native Maddie Bishop fell all the way to the fifth round of the NWHL Draft but was a captain at Sacred Heart with 88 career DI points to her name. This is a fun roster with lots of new faces for Whale fans to fall in love with.

Why the Whale Can Win It All

The rally cry of “Why Not Us?!” has been adopted by multiple teams in the past. The 2004 curse-breaking Boston Red Sox. The 2013–14 upstart Colorado Avalanche, who went from Northwest Division basement dwellers to Central Division powerhouse in a blink. As mantras go, it’s a song we’ve heard before.

But that doesn’t mean the Whale shouldn’t get well acquainted with it.

The Whale have never made the Isobel Cup Final. They’ve never really come close. This feels like the best opportunity for them to make a push. They have a young, talented roster. They have retained a strong leadership group. History aside, anyone can have a hot two weeks, right?

A lot rides on how well the returning players mesh with the newbies. Kaycie Anderson led the team in scoring, but can she build on that with a better supporting cast? Will Vlasic blossom into a true elite goal scorer? Can the offense orchestrate seams for Sarah Schwenzfeier’s blazing speed to rip through?

Yes, there are a lot of questions. But the fact that the roster has been reconstructed so heavily, with so many legitimately impactful pieces, leaves plenty of room for optimism. This team doesn’t have the expectations on them that the Pride have. It’s the perfect opportunity for Whale fans to simply kick back and enjoy the ride.

Prediction

While it seems unlikely that the Whale unseat Boston or Minnesota for one of the top two spots in the standings, there’s no reason they can’t power their way to the Isobel Cup semifinal as a middle seed. From there, Wolejko could totally steal a play-in game. Anything can happen in a single-elimination matchup. All it takes is one bounce.

Hey, why not us?