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Why the Whale have what it takes to sink the Whitecaps

This year Connecticut is so much more than the NWHL’s lovable underdog

Michelle Jay

We are now just days away from the 2021 Isobel Cup Semifinals going live on NBCSN. Both games are must-see hockey for any fan but one of the two match-ups offers something that the other doesn’t.

Since the 2016-17 season, the Connecticut Whale have a record of 14-57-7. Furthermore, they’ve never defeated the Minnesota Whitecaps in 10 meetings. They’ve been the NWHL’s lovable underdogs for years now but it looks like we might be at the end of that chapter. The Whale are real contenders and there is no reason why they won’t be the last team left standing in Boston on Saturday night.

Connecticut is undoubtedly going to miss veteran forward Janine Weber but this roster is a force to be reckoned with. There’s been a lot of buzz and attention surrounding the addition of Melissa Samoskevich and newcomers to the team like Kayla Friesen, Tori Howran, and Maggie LaGue, but the Whale’s veteran core is still what holds everything together.

The Whale’s team identity remains defense-first built on an unabating work ethic which was built brick-by-brick by veterans including Shannon Doyle, Elena Orlando, Kaycie Anderson, and Hanna Beattie. The difference this year is that there are new faces who have been able to create and attack within that structure. It’s a recipe that we saw an encouraging glimpse of in Lake Placid.

“Last year we really bought-in to the culture that we have a certain type of style that we want to play with that the other teams can’t — that’s being the hardest team to play against and that starts in our defensive zone,” captain Shannon Doyle told The Ice Garden. “We try to be really gritty, we make body contact as much as we can, and we try to frustrate some players who don’t traditionally like to be forced into corner battles with us or rubbed out when they enter our zone.”

The Whale play hard. That’s nothing new. What is new is that all of that work is showing signs of finally paying off, highlighted by a 54.5 CF% in four games at Lake Placid and a 4-1 statement win over the Boston Pride on Jan. 27.

“Now that we have a few more wonderful rookies that add some offensive flair to our game and bolster our lineup from last year, when we move into transition it’s a lot more difficult for other teams to deal with us,” Doyle shared. “If you look at film from last year, when we went up it would be maybe one or two of us and then we’d be changing or there’d be a disconnect in the neutral zone.

“This year and at the tail end of last year we worked really hard to ensure that all five of us are up the ice and providing those extra layers. We have some girls who can really shoot the puck and that’s a threat on initial zone entry, but now we also have that secondary layer coming in.”

Connecticut’s attack is something the Whitecaps need to be ready for. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they will be without two of their best defenders.

During a Zoom media availability on Tuesday night, Whitecaps co-head coach Jack Brodt revealed that Emma Stauber is unable to make the trip to Boston for the Isobel Cup Playoffs. The team she coaches, Proctor/Hermantown Mirage Girls Hockey, is going to a state tournament. Last week, we also learned that Sydney Baldwin would not be joining the team and would be replaced in the lineup by All-Star Amanda Boulier.

Bringing Boulier back into the picture will help but the absence of Stauber is a huge loss. In Lake Placid, Baldwin averaged 27:24 TOI/GP and Stauber averaged 21:50 — third among all Whitecaps defenders. That’s a ton of ice time. They were also the defenders responsible for the most zone exits via pass in Lake Placid. In other words, the Whitecaps will have to re-think their exits and counter-attack against a Whale team that prides itself on being the toughest team in the league to play against.

“Sydney is still the very best player on our team,” Jack Brodt told the media on Tuesday. “It’s going to be an issue but what are you going to do? You got what you got. As of right now we’ll probably have Boulier up there, on one of the power plays. We’re certainly not going to be able to replace Syd, that’s for sure, but we’ll do the best we can.”

A key player to watch on Friday for Minnesota will be rookie defender Maddie Rowe who, in all likelihood, will be on the top pair with Boulier but co-head coach Jack Brodt wasn’t willing to disclose that information, “We’ve got it figured out but we’re not disclosing it just yet.” Rowe finished Lake Placid second among Whitecaps defenders in average ice time (24:30) and led the blue line with 17 blocked shots. That’s an average of at least four blocked shots per-game.

Captain Winny Brodt Brown likes Rowe’s size and her energy level which is why Minnesota will be counting on the rookie to help lead the charge in Boston. But Rowe, Brodt Brown, Boulier, and the rest of Minnesota’s defense will have their hands full on Friday night. In order to beat the Whale Minnesota is going to need something special out of key forwards Allie Thunstrom and Jonna Curtis as well as superstar goaltender Amanda Leveille. This will be a tough test for the Whitecaps and they know it.

“If we get into a run and gun game we’re probably going to lose that game,” Brodt told the media. “We’ve had more success when we’ve kept the score down rather than elevating the score. If we don’t play good team defense we aren’t going past the first game.”

At the end of the day, anything can happen in a single-game elimination scenario but if you’re a fan of the Whale you should be excited. This team is deep even without Samoskevich joining the fold. It has (at least) two lines that can score, an underrated checking line, and the best blue line in Whale history. It also has two goaltenders capable of stealing a win. The Whale have it all. There’s never been any doubt about their will over the last few years but now they have the pieces they were missing to get to the Isobel Cup Final.

This just might be the Year of the Whale.

The puck drops this Friday at 8:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN in the US and on twitch.tv/nwhl internationally.

Data courtesy of InStat, nwhl.zone, and the author’s own tracking.