For the Connecticut Whale of the National Women’s Hockey League, quality scoring chances were in short supply last season. The 2018-19 squad not only lit the lamp a mere 22 times, but also had limited opportunities as a whole in the offensive zone.
Those tendencies took a huge turn in the right direction during Saturday’s season-opening 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Beauts at the Danbury Ice Arena.
Trailing 1-0 after a first period that saw both teams work through uneven play, the Whale performed like a well-oiled machine over the next 20 minutes and knotted the score at 1-1. An appreciative crowd of several hundred of the Cetacean Nation faithful cheered as the team showed relentless pursuit, solid stickhandling and accurate passing.
The Beauts matched the Whale’s determination in the third period, and it was going to come down to which team got the right break at the right time.
The Whale lines actually showed signs of clicking in the first period. Despite the Beauts’ power play tally by Lenka Curmova less than five minutes in, the Danbury dynamos went into the locker room feeling good about their all-round effort.
“We had all those emotions going on early in the game, everyone was kind of nervous and jittery, but we felt like we had some opportunities,” said Grace Klienbach, whose goal midway through the second period provided the equalizer.
Whale Make Their Presence Felt
The Whale spent the majority of the second period either in total attack mode in the Beauts’ territory, or controlling the puck in the neutral zone.
“We were just talking (on the bench) about getting more pucks down deep, and right after that I got open and was yelling for the puck,” continued Klienbach, who converted the low-slot attempt off a nice pass from Emma Vlasic at the 10:17 mark. “It was so ironic that it worked out that way.”
Beauts’ netminder Mariah Fujimagari was otherwise stellar in the nets, stopping 26 of 27 Whale shots.
Her performance made life frustrating for the Whale, which dominated in puck possession and won virtually all of the battles between the blue lines in that promising second period.
“All our defenders were rolling down, and our wingers were rolling through, and it caused confusion,” said Whale captain Shannon Doyle in describing their ability to outmaneuver Buffalo at both ends of the ice. “We really showed how good we can be that period and gave ourselves pretty good chances.”
Doyle was a force all over the ice, not only playing terrific defensively, but sharing most shots on goal (4) recognition with Sarah Hughson and Sarah Schwenzfeier.
Early in the middle frame, Taylor Marchin fired a one-time blast from the high slot that Fujimagari had to be in perfect position to grab. The Whale continued the pressure as Jane Morrisette went to a backhander with Kendra Broad creating havoc near the crease.
Kaycie Anderson and Vlasic also showed their speed and puck skills with some nifty moves to get past Beauts defenders at several times in the contest.
Even Maddie Evangelous, who is so new to the roster that her No. 2 jersey didn’t have her name yet inscribed on it, impressed with several rushes on the left wing.
Outcome Came down to One Key Play
Buffalo’s big break came on a partial breakaway by Brooke Stacey resulting in the decisive goal with just over three minutes remaining in the contest.
Fujimagari was up to every challenge that came her way after Klienbach’s goal and was critical to the visitors getting the “W.”
Encouraging Signs from Game 1
“I thought this was a great home opener for us,” said Whale Assistant Coach Laura Brennan, who continues to mentor the team while head coach Colton Orr is away on a commitment. “We took it to the net; got more shots than they did. We had a lot of chances … we just need to bury the puck more.”
Brennan praised the performance of Fujimagari.
“Their goalie played amazing,” Brennan said. “She’s a big goalie playing in the center of the net. You saw a lot of pucks hitting her right square in the belly.”
Shelly Was Also Stellar in the Net
Meanwhile, Whale goalie Sonjia Shelly was pleased with her effort between the pipes. She finished with 14 saves in 16 attempts as the Beauts’ third goal was an empty-netter.
“I was seeing the puck really well, especially in that second period, and the ‘D’ made my job easy by keeping (the Beauts) away from the front,” Shelly said. “That gave me good looks at their shots; I felt comfortable out there.”
With Doyle spearheading the blocking schemes in front of her, Shelly was able to settle in as the final line of defense.
“I thought we really did a good job of setting the pace, especially as the game went on,” said Doyle, whose tenacious play included a baseball-like slide to divert a slap shot from the top of the left circle in the third period. “(Buffalo) really didn’t have that many opportunities. We did a nice job of closing out (their chances) quickly.”
Early Season Weekend off a Benefit
The Whale will have a golden opportunity to further mesh and accentuate the positives with two weeks to prepare before returning to action with back-to-back encounters Oct. 19 and Oct. 20 against the Beauts in Buffalo.
“We haven’t been practicing all that long, but we feel like we’ve made the most of the time we’ve had to grow together and I feel we’re just going to get better,” Klienbach said. “We’re communicating on and off the ice which I think is so important. We’re bonding well with one another.”
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