By Mike Murphy
The Connecticut Whale are the only team in the NWHL that is still hunting for its first win of the season. Going by the numbers, the Whale have been the unluckiest team in the league with a 95.25 PDO (all situations). If you’re a Whale fan, you don’t need to be versed in analytics to attest to the fact that the bounces just haven’t been going Connecticut’s way.
However, a deeper look at the numbers reveals a silver lining. Connecticut’s -3 even strength goal differential through the first five games of the 2019-20 season is a sign that this team is heading in the right direction. It’s also important to note that two of the Whale’s defeats were by one-goal margins. With head coach Colton Orr expected behind the bench on the other side of the break, there’s cause for optimism in Danbury.
Offense from Defense
Heading into the 2019-20 season, many considered the Whale’s veteran defense to be the team’s greatest strength. Connecticut’s blue line features three original NWHLers – Shannon Doyle, Jordan Brickner, and Elena Orlando – in addition to Taylor Marchin and Erin Hall, both of whom are entering their third seasons as pros. Thus far, as a unit, they’ve been a stalwart group that have allowed 30.73 SA60 – the lowest rate of shots against in the league.
As expected, Doyle has led the way in all three zones. Doyle is one of two defenders in the NWHL leading her team in scoring at the break. She also leads the Whale in shots (19) and leads the league in blocked shots (16). Doyle has been the team’s biggest playmaker with and without the puck. If Orr wants to point to one of his players to serve as an example of what it means to play Connecticut Whale hockey, he needs look no further than his captain.
Rookie first line center Emma Vlasic has been excellent thus far with two goals and a dominant 62.73 percent success rate on the faceoff dot. Expect the Yale alumna to score many more on the other side of the break. Going by the eye test, she’s been the Whale’s most impactful forward despite being tasked with shutting down the top centers on opposing teams.
Vlasic’s contributions have been amplified by the play of Grace Klienbach and Kaycie Anderson. Klienbach, who has already eclipsed her point total from her rookie season, shares the primary point lead on the Whale with Doyle and has scored all four of her points at even strength. Anderson has also been a star for the Whale at evens. She has three primary points at even strength and her +5 on-ice goal differential at 5-on-5 is the best on the team by a wide margin.
Despite solid play from Vlasic, Klienbach, Kaycie Anderson, and Sarah Hughson, the Whale’s forwards have not yet touched their potential as a group. Newcomers Jane Morrisette, Maddie Evangelous, and Haley Payne are all adjusting to speed of the game at this level but have already shown a great deal of promise.
Rookie goaltender Sonjia Shelly had her best game of the season, a 42-save performance, just before the break. In her last three appearances, she’s posted a .891 save percentage. Like the Whale’s young forwards, Shelly has also had to adjust to the speed of the NWHL game.
Orr’s top priority with his team over the break should be improving its play on special teams. The Whale have the least successful power play (10.34%) and penalty kill (47.62%) in the league. Numbers like that go beyond bad puck luck. A defense-first team like Connecticut needs to have a strong penalty kill.
The Whale skaters need to do more as a group to help their goaltenders on the kill and keep shots to the outside like they’ve done at even strength. Of course, that is easier said than done when you are down one or two skaters, but, on paper, the Whale have all the ingredients they need to build a wall in front of their net on the kill.
With an old school hockey icon like Orr and a former NWHL goaltender Laura Brennan behind the bench, this penalty kill is sure to improve with time. The same is true of the power play, which has already shown a great deal of promise with Doyle making things happen at the point.
The Whale return to action on Sunday, Nov. 17 when they host the Buffalo Beauts at the Danbury Ice Arena. Tickets for that game and all Whale home games are available at whale.nwhl.zone/tickets. Following that contest, the Whale will be on the road for a Nov. 23 showdown against the Boston Pride in Boston. All Whale games can be watched streaming free on twitch.tv/nwhl and twitch.tv/nwhl2.
Photo Credit: Bryan Johnson