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The Connecticut Whale are for real

The Whale finally slay the beast from Boston

Connecticut Whale forward Katelynn Russ skates back to the bench after scoring a goal in Lake Placid, NY on Jan 27, 2021.
Michelle Jay

Introducing the “Why Not Us” Whale.

It looked like a typical Whale–Pride game after two periods Wednesday night. Boston struck first on the scoreboard late in the opening frame and held Connecticut to just two shots on goal in the second.

The Whale proved you can never count them out. Not even against Boston.

After a huge penalty kill, Tori Howran snuck a shot from the point past Boston’s Victoria Hanson to even up the score. Katelynn Russ banged one in from the crease 2:20 later. Connecticut never looked back, firing 20 third-period shots at Hanson and scoring on four of them.

This was more than just an exorcism of Boston demons. This was a statement to the rest of the NWHL that, in case you didn’t already know, the 2021 Whale are legit.

For context: the Whale had not beaten the Boston Pride since Feb. 2, 2018. That’s a three-year wait. They were 0–6–1 last year, counting the postseason, got outscored 33–7, and led once for all of 11 minutes across the entire season series.

That Whale team has completely transmogrified into a legit Isobel Cup contender, sitting at 2–1–0 while Boston toils at 1–3–0.

How did this happen?

“It’s great to have that depth,” commented head coach Colton Orr following the win. “We know we can roll our lines and get scoring from all the way down our lineup.”

Orr is right: the Whale are as deep as they’ve ever been. Alyssa Wohlfeiler has been a beast in driving the play up ice, using her speed and her power to make plays happen in the attacking zone. Rookies like Howran, Russ, and Amanda Conway are coming up big in clutch situations.

Not to mention last year’s leading goal scorer Emma Vlasic, who — after failing to register a single assist in 24 games in 2019–20 — logged three helpers plus a goal of her own Wednesday night.

“We definitely have good support,” Vlasic beamed. “Wohlfie and Russ were in great spots today, it’s been great playing with them. That’s a part of my game I’ve wanted to work on ... We were definitely finding each other out there tonight.”

The Whale were able to turn on the jets in the third period in a way that they have never been able to do in their franchise’s entire history. They killed off four uninterrupted minutes of shorthanded time and still managed to badly outshoot Boston in the frame. They’re averaging 39 shots on goal per game. They’re tied with Minnesota for the best scoring offense in the entire league with nine goals in three games.

Plus, they’re among the better shot suppressors in the league.

It’s more than just numbers, though. Something about this collection of players feels more ... alive. The bench is rowdy. Goal celebrations are wrought with emotion — particularly from captain Shannon Doyle.

Doyle embodies the Whale plight. She has carried this franchise on her back since the beginning, loading all of the team’s burdens on her back; “Whale Bad Luck,” she calls it. She declared over the summer that this would be her final season in the NWHL, and she appears to be squeezing every last drop from it.

She knows it’s her final chance at reaching the Isobel Cup Final, too — something the Whale have never done.

“We are producing, which is amazing,” Doyle said of her team’s offense after a close 4–3 loss to Metropolitan on Sunday. “We have a lot of really young, talented forwards. Definitely improved, 100 percent.”

“I think that we’ve been able to play with a lot of energy right now,” Orr elaborated. “When you get Tori [Howran] scoring goals, you get everyone contributing, you get everyone rolling and everyone involved, it just really helps with that energy. It keeps everyone positive.”

The paradigm shift is noticeable. Yes, the Boston Pride were without captain Jillian Dempsey and Jenna Rheault. But a 23–1–0 record in 2019–20 is otherworldly. Dempsey or no Dempsey, the Pride are still great.

“Last year, it felt like [Boston] would always beat up on us,” Vlasic laughed. “It was always a battle ... we just couldn’t get over that next step to beating them. It feels really good to get over that hump and beat this team.”

“[This group has] tremendous confidence to go down [on the scoreboard] and stay with things,” Orr added. “Last year going down to Boston 1–0 felt like the biggest hole to dig out of. When we’re sitting there with this group, whether we’re down 2–0 to the Rivs [Sunday] or 1–0 to Boston [tonight], we just had that confidence on the bench. We knew we could come back, we knew we could win this game.”

Orr has played a key part in the Whale’s fundamental turnaround, as noted by Pride head coach and Orr’s former NHL teammate Paul Mara.

“Unbelievable,” he said of Connecticut’s improvement. “[Orr] has done a fantastic job with that team. From the way they started last year to now, it’s a totally different team. Tip your hat to him. It’s just unbelievable.”

It bears repeating: this team has a swagger to them that’s so captivating to watch. It’s more than just energy. It’s a resiliency that comes with having nothing left to lose as a franchise and wanting to wash the stink of last place clean from their shoulders.

Scratch that, it’s not wanting to escape last place. It’s wanting first place. The Connecticut Whale have their sights on first place. Isn’t that something?

Insert Paul Rudd meme here. “Hey. Look at us. Who would have thought?”

“Being a new player, we always heard about the Boston Pride being one of the top teams,” said Howran. “To come out on top against them in this bubble shows how much we’ve worked in the offseason together as a group and how much we’ve come together and grown.”

Connecticut is now tied with the Metropolitan Riveters for second place in the round robin. Since the Riveters own the head-to-head tiebreaker, Connecticut will need more points outright to earn a bye to the Semi-Final.

They take on the Minnesota Whitecaps on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. While the ’Caps are the last unbeaten team, it has taken two bonkers finishes — including a 5–1 comeback over Toronto and a literal last-second goal against Metro — to get them there. They’ve white-knuckled it to the top. Nothing is impossible.

If Connecticut can finally slay the dragon from Boston, all bets are off.

The “Why Not Us” Whale are ready to roll.