WHALE WATCHING WITH ERICA: A BIG TEST AGAINST BOSTON
By Erica Ayala
Last week, the Connecticut Whale played one of their most complete games against the reigning Isobel Cup Champions. They held the Minnesota Whitecaps scoreless in two out of six periods across the weekend series, but fell 3-0 Saturday and 2-1 on Sunday afternoon.
As the Pod grew stronger in last weekend's series against the Whitecaps, goaltender Kelsey Neumann and her Buffalo Beauts took the Boston Pride to overtime for the first time this season. Will this be the week that one streak ends?
Here is what needs to happen for the Whale to get that first win.
Connecticut survived another physical battle last weekend, but this time without Erin Hall and Jordan Brickner. With both defenders out of the lineup, Hanna Beattie dropped back to give head coach Colton Orr four defenders to work with. The blue line quartet only allowed five goals to the speedy Whitecaps team over the weekend, one of which was an empty-netter. Speaking of speed, Allie Thunstrom took control of Saturday's game.
The Boston College alumna tallied a hat trick in the third period to lift the Whitecaps to a victory. She earned NWHL Veda Player of the Week for her four-goal weekend.
Thunstrom scored a goal early in the first period, hoping to secure control of the game early. Rookie Emma Vlasic beat Amanda Leveille to tie the game with five minutes remaining in the first for her team-leading fifth goal of the season. However, the lead wouldn't last. Haylea Schmid scored the third goal of the period and the final goal of the game three minutes later.
Players to Watch
Emma Vlasic leads the Pod in goals and head coach Colton Orr will likely hope she has a few more goals in her stick when the Boston Pride roll into Danbury Ice Arena this weekend. Orr's former NHL teammate Paul Mara has the top two goal scorers (McKenna Brand and Mary Parker) in the league on his squad. Assist leader Christina Putigna (14) and points leader Jillian Dempsey (24) are also suiting up for Boston this weekend.
With Hall and Brickner out indefinitely, Orr will be short on defense again. The blueline, however, is not the biggest hurdle for Connecticut to overcome this weekend. Vlasic, Kayla Meneghin, and Jane Morrisette are the Whale's leading goal scorers, yet they match Brand's individual goal production. The Whale need to find a way to generate more offense.
Orr has a decision to make come Saturday. Whale goaltenders Brooke Wolejko and Sonja Shelly split duties last weekend, each making over 35 saves against Thunstrom and the Whitecaps. Despite each collecting a loss, neither played in a matter to lose the trust of their team or coaching staff. Coming into this weekend, Wolejko has a .901 save percentage; Shelly, who has seen more starts this season, has an .887 Sv%.
Given the offensive juggernaut that is Boston, it wouldn't be a surprise for the netminders to split the series. The Whale have grown stronger, their passing has become crisper, and they now know they have two goalies who can keep them in a game. Success against Boston will depend on their ability to win a close game and have at least two of their goal scorers come through with a clutch performance. And, presumably, they'd like to keep the four defenders they have healthy after blocking shots from the Pride's dangerous forwards.
How to Watch
The Pride and Whitecaps face-off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 28 and again at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, Dec. 29. Fans can buy tickets at whale.nwhl.zone/tickets or at the Danbury Ice Arena, or follow along on Twitch TV.
Photo Credit: Michelle Jay