The Connecticut Whale went the entirety of 2019 without a win.
While it would be very easy to end the article there and write this team, currently 0-12-2, off as the league’s embarrassingly inept red-headed stepchild, an autopsy of 2019 would reveal just how excruciatingly, tantalizingly, sickeningly close they came without getting so much as one stupid win.
All it would take is one flukey bounce. One seeing-eye shot. One more save. One instance of the stars aligning in just the right way that they may smile down upon the Pod.
But alas. Here we are in 2020 with the Whale winless since December 2, 2018.
Let’s hand out some report cards.
The Whale have scored 23 goals in 14 games. The next-lowest total has 41 (Metropolitan, in one fewer game played). They have scored more than two goals in a game twice all season- both times in one weekend in Buffalo. For the record, that’s the same number of times that they have been shut out this season.
Their powerplay is last in the league, operating at 9.5% efficiency. They are 0-for-their-last-11 and 2-for-23 in the month of December.
There exist very few legitimate shooting threats on the Whale. Kayla Meneghin, Jane Morrissette and Emma Vlasic combine for nine goals and have been solid, consistent contributors. The problem is those three players outscore the rest of the team. No one else on the team has more than two goals.
The best chance the Whale’s offense had all season to win a game was October 19th, when they led the Buffalo Beauts 3-0 at the end of the first period and 4-2 with 15 minutes remaining in regulation. They would fall in overtime, allowing four powerplay goals in the game.
Which brings us to...
The Whale’s defense is in a vastly different spot now than it was at the beginning of the season. They averaged 5.25 goals-allowed-per-game in their first four games, and are down to 3.80 in their following 10.
Nine of the Whale’s 14 losses have come by two goals or fewer. This team is in games. Prior to their 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Boston Pride last Sunday, their last five final scores were: 2-1, 2-1, 3-0, 3-2, 2-1. It’s always that one critical mistake that sinks them- the one blown coverage, the one shorthanded goal allowed, the one breakaway chance too many.
Their penalty kill has been much improved, up 20% on the season since Colton Orr took over as head coach. Their goaltending has been solid, with the breakout performance of Brooke Wolejko a massive bright spot to end 2019.
They just cannot close games out. In nine games decided by two or fewer goals, the Whale have allowed six goals in the final five minutes of regulation time or overtime. The worst such incident was their Oct. 27 home game against the Minnesota Whitecaps. After taking the lead midway through the third period, the Whale allowed a tying goal with 2:31 remaining and a powerplay goal with :31 on the clock to lose in regulation.
Tending goal for a team that scores fewer than two goals a game on average is a no-win scenario. Yet the Whale keep finding netminders that hold down the fort and manage to impress between the pipes, whether it be Meeri Räisänen or Sydney Rossman or Sonjia Shelly or Brooke Wolejko.
Shelly and Wolejko have both recorded their fair share of highlight-reel saves. They have had plenty of opportunity to do so, as the most shot-against duo in the NWHL.
Wolejko may have stolen the first string job from Shelly with her play of late, stopping 103 shots last weekend against the Boston Pride. Wolejko and the Whale took the undefeated Pride to a shootout before losing in the skills competition.
True to form, the Whale provided no goal support in the shootout.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: this team can win hockey games. They have been trending in the right direction. They hung in with the best team in the league, taking them to a shootout. The Whale have at least one one-goal loss to every opponent in the NWHL.
Their penalty kill is vastly improved. Their defensive tendencies are getting better. Their goaltending is keeping them in games. Much of the credit is owed to Orr behind the bench, instilling a sense of grittiness and resiliency in this squad.
They can win. I’ll go so far as to say they will win a game before season’s end.
There’s no way they can go all of 2020 without a win too...right?