In a year marked by the unprecedented growth of the women’s game, the penultimate day of 2017 will feature an exhibition contest between the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale and the South Korean Women’s National Team. On December 30, the Whale will play the soon-to-be Olympic hosts at Yale University’s Ingalls Rink.
For South Korea, the contest against Connecticut is a unique opportunity to play a North American team that has a surprising amount of speed and skill. It should prove to be an invaluable tune-up before Korea crosses sticks with the best teams in the world. South Korea’s head coach Sarah Murray, a former defender at UMD who played pro hockey in Europe, hopes the game will help her Korean team steel itself for what’s coming in February.
“The game against the Connecticut Whale will be a great challenge and preparation for the Olympics for our team,” said South Korean National Team head coach Sarah Murray. “We are excited to have the opportunity to see how our team matches up against one of the high-level teams of the NWHL.”
Murray recently adjusted what her team’s goals are for Pyeongchang. At first, Team Korea’s objective was to play hard in every game and make the country proud. Now, Murray has raised the bar. Korea’s new goal is to advance out of Group B, a group it shares with Sweden, Switzerland and Japan, and win bronze.
"Together, we came up with a new plan because our team is getting better. Our new goal is to advance out of our bracket," Murray outlined in a recent interview. "It doesn't matter if we win one game or three games, or there's a tiebreaker. Somehow, we're going to advance out of our division at the Olympics. In our division, teams are pretty interchangeable. I think the work that we've put in over the last three years, especially this year, has set us up to have success in the Olympics."
It’s a lofty goal for a team playing in its first Olympics, especially for a team that has struggled since winning the Women’s World Championship Division IIA last April. Still, the Olympics are all about pursuing lofty goals. A game against NWHL competition will provide the Koreans with a significant challenge with the Olympics fast approaching. It’s a chance to test themselves against a professional North American team, which is something that Russia has used as part of its preparation for the past two years.
The Whale enter their exhibition game against Korea riding a three-game losing streak, but Connecticut is a lot more than the team at the bottom of the current NWHL standings. The Whale have endured some hard luck this season. Through the first seven games of the season, Connecticut has the lowest PDO (all strengths) in the NWHL. The Whale also finally had forward Meghan Huertas return to the lineup after she missed the first six games of the season recovering from offseason surgery.
The game against South Korea could prove to be a huge boon for Connecticut. Adding an extra game to the regular season schedule means at least another 60 minutes to test systems, develop chemistry, and hopefully work on special teams play.
The Whale currently have the worst power play and penalty kill rates in the NWHL. Much of the power play’s struggles are tied to the team’s unsustainably low 5.4 shooting percentage. So some extra looks on special teams outside of practices and scrimmages can only be a good thing for the Whale. We should expect the Whale to come out shooting, much like they did against the Beauts on December 16.
The main storyline of this unique contest will be about the growth of the women’s game. But there’s also a lot at stake for both Korea and the Whale on December 30. A win for either team could provide invaluable momentum and confidence. Those are intangibles that both clubs could use for the road that lies ahead.