Three goals on three shots in under three minutes should have been enough for the visiting Connecticut Whale on Sunday. A 5-1 lead over the second-place Riveters should have been enough. Two goals by Zoe Hickel in her first game in green should have been enough.
But that would not be enough.
Four unanswered Riveters goals forced overtime, where a series of unfortunate events allowed Courtney Burke’s point shot to elude Nicole Stock. The home team celebrated an improbable 6-5 win.
The Riveters (7-6-3, 17 pts) look to be a lock for second place; the Whale (4-10-1, 9 points) have now lost seven in a row and sit two points behind the Beauts in last place.
Zoe Hickel’s ill-timed third period penalty staked the Riveters to 1:52 of 4-on-3 power play time to start the extra frame.
As penalty killers, Nicole Kosta, Kaliya Johnson, and Meagan Mangene grew increasingly tired, and Burke’s point shot hit Mangene squarely in the back, doubling her over in pain. Amanda Kessel gathered up the puck and fed it back to Burke at the point. With Mangene, who would later be taken to the hospital, incapacitated, and Kosta sliding desperately toward the shooter, Burke walked in and slid the puck under Stock’s left pad.
The scene was indicative of both the ill-timed luck (Mangene’s scary injury) and defensive lapses (Kosta and Johnson’s positioning) that torpedoed the Whale’s early lead.
Riding the goalie carousel
With Jordan Brickner and Shannon Doyle out of the lineup and Anya Battaglino providing commentary on the broadcast, coach Heather Linstad patched together a makeshift defense. The oft-scratched Juana Baribeau played minimal minutes, while forward Meghan Huertas was paired with Mangene. Cydney Roesler and Johnson were tasked with being the shutdown pair against Janine Weber (2G, 2A) and Kessel (4A).
It was a gamble that initially paid off. The addition of Hickel inspired a more balanced Whale offense than we’ve seen in a while. The former Pride forward wasted little time in leaving a good first impression.
Seconds later, Kelly Babstock, playing on a line with Kosta and Micaela Long, split the defense to score a pretty five-hole goal. Kelli Stack tossed a shot from the high slot that Fitzgerald should have stopped. Three shots on three goals prompted Riveters coach Chad Wiseman to replace Fitzgerald with third stringer Sarah Bryant, who had previously logged only 34 seconds this season—against the Whale on Jan. 29. She would not last much longer on Sunday. Wiseman re-inserted Fitzgerald after Hickel’s second goal beat Bryant blocker-side.
The Riveters narrowed the lead to 4-1 on a Weber shorthanded goal that glanced off of a spinning Long. Despite trailing by three, the Riveters outshot the Whale 13-9 in the first period and 34-23 overall.
Stack ripped a slapshot to extend the Whale’s lead to 5-1 at 6:42 of the second. An evenly matched period saw the Riveters climb back to 5-2 on a Madison Packer power play goal from an impossible angle:
Penalties and sloppy play
While the Whale showed flashes of offensive spark in the first two periods, four third period penalties sapped them of any momentum.
After an offensive zone turnover, Johnson’s ill-timed pinch at her own blue line left Huertas as the lone defender on a quick-developing Riveters three-on-one. Weber capitalized on Huertas’ inexperience, dancing around her sprawled-out frame before beating Stock glove-side just 2:26 into the third.
The game slipped from the Whale’s grasp midway through the period.
Speedster Rebecca Russo lured Mangene into the corner before winding the puck into a crowded slot. Both Huertas and Kosta sprawled in front of Stock, leaving Michelle Picard alone to pick her spot. Curiously, the officials gathered at center ice following the goal to assess Huertas with a slashing penalty, presumably after the goal was scored.
New York would not squander the ensuing power play. Miye D’Oench tied the game at five by tipping in former Whale Kaleigh Fratkin’s point shot. Defender Elena Orlando threw her head toward the rafters after letting D’Oench slip in front of Stock unimpeded. The other three penalty killers had been lured to the far corner, allowing Fratkin a clear look at the goal.
The Whale will continue to soul-search before the final three games of the regular season. Their offensive depth is improved with Hickel. But the move also creates a logjam up front. Huertas has displayed a knack for scoring goals in her abbreviated time so far; Linstad would likely be loathe to scratch Kosta or Nicole Connery. Long would be the likely choice, but she also provides a key two-way presence. Assuming the return of Brickner and Doyle on defense, she still will have 13 forwards for 12 spots.
The departures of Molly Engstrom and Ivana Bilic continue to plague a defensively thin team. Now, with the health of Mangene in question, the Whale run the risk of essentially rolling two pairs of established defensemen — Johnson, Roesler (both of whom were overexposed with increased minutes) and Brickner, Doyle. Orlando is capable, but is not counted on for shutdown minutes. The pressure only mounts for goaltenders Stock and Shenae Lundberg, who will likely share time in the remaining games.
Still, the Whale have a chance to avoid facing Boston in the first round of the Isobel Cup playoffs. Even with the overtime point on Sunday, clinching a third-place finish will be a tall order: they’ll likely need to defeat the Beauts twice (in regulation) next weekend — and, like the rest of the league, cross their fingers against the undefeated Pride. And yet, a team that hasn’t won since Dec. 11 can still control their destiny. But it will require a better performance than Sunday’s gut-punch loss.