The Connecticut Whale were showing signs of excellence prior to the NWHL’s shutdown in Lake Placid. After four seasons spent at the bottom of the pile, the Whale took tremendous strides to escape the league’s basement.
Connecticut finished 2–2–0 over four games, though it is difficult to evaluate their final game. Context for their 6–0 loss to Toronto is important considering how many players were held out of the lineup and how many were battling COVID-19 in the coming days. Though the star only burned bright for so long, there’s a lot to smile about in the Pod.
The Whale averaged 3 goals-for per game in their first three games before COVID decimated their roster. For reference, the Whitecaps scored at the same clip over four games and the Pride managed 3.14 goals-per-game over seven games. If prior to the season fans were told the Whale would be just as productive offensively as Minnesota and Boston, they’d take that in a heartbeat.
Alyssa Wohlfeiler led the team in scoring with a goal and four assists. She drove the offense in a way that the Whale haven’t really seen since Kateřina Mrázová — and even Mrázová lacked the kind of power Wohlfeiler showed. Wohlfeiler bullied her way into the attacking zone like a true power forward. Unlike schemes of years past, she actually had options with her on the rush, forging special chemistry with linemate Emma Vlasic. Vlasic and Wohlfeiler flexed their muscles in the third period against Boston on January 27, as the two combined for seven points in a 4–1 win.
On a scale of 1 🐳 to 10 🐳s how Whale was Alyssa Wohlfeiler's goal!?— Connecticut Whale (@CTWhale_NWHL) January 28, 2021
🤩🤩🤩 ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/Rtwu3RZSNg
This Whale team proved to be a threat regardless of situation. Though they lost to the Riveters 4–3, they battled back to tie the score from both 2–0 and 3–2. Their four-goal explosion against the Pride came when they were down 1–0 and outshot the period before 10–2. They averaged 35.5 shots per game, which ranked second-best in the league behind only Toronto. Connecticut showed fight past Whale teams never did, mostly thanks to their offensive punch.
Part of that improvement on the offensive side of the puck comes from their improvement on the blue line. After getting outshot for most of last season, the Whale allowed 31.25 shots per game, third-best in the league. Most of that improvement comes from the reinforcements provided for Shannon Doyle. True, Doyle did lead the Whale in time on ice, per InStat Hockey, but her defensive partner Tori Howran was the true standout. Howran notched a goal and two assists in three games played before getting held out of the fourth contest.
Howran only got better as the tournament went on, and her absence was conspicuous against the Toronto Six. The best defenders are good not just because they hold down the fort in their own end, but also because they move the puck and jumpstart the offense. Howran brought that to the table, which lightened the load for Doyle and Elena Orlando — who registered two assists a piece.
The problem that Howran’s absence in game four highlighted was the top-heaviness of the Whale’s defensive corps. Especially if Doyle does retire this summer as she has said she would, the Whale need additional pieces to build around Howran, Orlando, and Maggie LaGue. A reunion with Jordan Brickner would make sense, but would really only be step one in what should be a multistep plan to add pieces.
At the very least, this is a solid building block for the franchise.
If you want to know why it's important to have mobile, puck-moving D like Howran in the lineup, here's the shots for the Whale in periods with the long change this season:— Casey Bryant (@CaseyBryant51) February 1, 2021
16-7 TOR (no Howran)
It was a shortcoming last year, and tonight #NWHL
It was a bit of a surprise to see Abbie Ives get the nod in net on opening day considering how preposterously good Brooke Wolejko was in 2019–20. Ives worked quickly to silence doubters. The Quinnipiac grad finished 2–1–0 on the season with a .936 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average. Her first two starts were stellar one-goal wins, including a shootout triumph over the Beauts. Over the course of those two victories, she stopped 58 of 60 shots on goal.
Though Wolejko was less sharp in her lone start than years past, that’s just it — she only made one start. It’s not enough to write off a season’s worth of great work.
If Ives returns with Wolejko next season, it’s entirely possible the Whale have the best one-two punch in the league. And if Ives is the 1A, she may be a dark horse for Goaltender of the Year in 2021–22. Bet on it.
MVP: Katelynn Russ
There are plenty of options to choose from for a team MVP. Since we’ve already touched on the importance of Wohlfeiler, Howran, and Ives, let’s turn our attention to the forward directly responsible for two Whale wins: Katelynn Russ.
Russ, a 22-year-old forward out of Union College, first impressed Whale brass with a strong three-point outing against the Beauts in last year’s Isobel Cup Playoffs. With more ice time floated her way in 2021, she did not disappoint, showing a penchant for scoring in big moments.
First came her shootout-winning goal against the Beauts, a silky-smooth backhand to beat Carly Jackson.
Then, a redirection goal against the Riveters to knot the score at 2 in the first period. Finally, a go-ahead goal in the third period against Boston that would prove to be the GWG.
This is a gritty play from Russ, diving headlong into a loose puck in the crease. It’s a greasy play from a greasy player, one that takes a combination of skill and strength.
Russ is a bulldog of a forward. She wasn’t a big-time scorer at Union by any means, but she has the kind of instincts that make her an incredibly valuable depth option on the forward lines. True, she didn’t finish with the point total of a Wohlfeiler or Vlasic. But when matters just as much as how many.
Data courtesy of NWHL.zone, InStat Hockey, and HerHockeyCounts.com