Navigating through the early rip currents of this National Women’s Hockey League season has been challenging, but for the Connecticut Whale, it continues to be about the entire journey.
That challenge escalated on Sunday afternoon at the Danbury Ice Arena. The Whale endured their most heartbreaking loss amidst a stretch of games that would test even the most seasoned athletes let alone a squad filled with many newcomers.
Warding off virtually everything the Isobel Cup champion Minnesota Whitecaps threw at them through more than 57 minutes of adrenaline-rush hockey, the Whale were left in shock as the visitors turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory over the final 2:31.
The loss was the second in as many days for the Whale, who also dropped a 7-2 decision to their opponents from The North Star State on Saturday.
Whitecaps’ standout Sydney Baldwin, who twice celebrated National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles with her University of Minnesota women’s hockey team, was a thorn in the Whale’s side all weekend with two goals and four assists for six points.
Despite the potent attack displayed by the Whitecaps, the Whale never took their foot off the pedal and showed true grit all weekend.
“We were hustling really well … and playing aggressive,” Whale assistant captain Elena Orlando said. “(The Whitecaps) were really speedy but we were staying with them.”
Whale Tenacious in Third Period
Trailing 1-0 early in the third period on Sunday, Connecticut tied it up two minutes in when Kayla Meneghin took control at the blue line and split the Whitecaps defense for a power-play goal through the five-hole.
Then, at the 9:27 mark, Sarah Schwenzfeier was in perfect position on the right side to knock in a rebound. That effort put the Whale on top for the first time in the weekend series.
Schwenzfeier had, just seconds earlier, cleanly won the faceoff leading to a point shot by captain Shannon Doyle. That blast through traffic deflected over to Schwenzfeier for the go-ahead tally before the Whitecaps put together their stunning finish.
With her goal, the Norwich University graduate becomes the 14th Whale player to record at least one point this season.
A Star-Studded Sunday for Shelly
All the drama down the stretch would not have been possible without the sensational 42-save performance of goalie Sonjia Shelly.
Shelly was a fortress and a source of constant frustration for the Whitecaps, who applied pressure around her the entire contest.
The rookie netminder from St. Lawrence University stopped 26 of 27 shots over the first two periods, and then faced 18 Whitecaps’ attempts in the third period. Two of those came during the late and decisive flurry, but that doesn’t take away from a sterling showing in the nets.
Champs Pull Away in Series Opener
Unlike Sunday’s contest, the third period of Saturday’s game was an extremely tough one for the Whale.
After cutting Minnesota’s lead to 3-2 on a goal by Kaycie Anderson off a beautiful stretch pass from Doyle at the 14:52 mark of the second period, the Whale allowed an insurance tally by the Whitecaps with just 22 seconds left in that frame.
The Whale suffered a similar fate in the first period when, just seven seconds before the buzzer, the Whitecaps lit the lamp to break a scoreless deadlock.
The visitors carried that momentum into the third period, scoring twice in the first three minutes and another at 12:13 to seal the deal.
Whale Goals Worthy of Prime Time
The Whale’s scores were highlight-reel types and brought the Cetacean Nation faithful to its feet. The first goal by Yale University alum Emma Vlasic came on a backhander with a defender all over her and as she was falling to the ice.
Making that goal even more fantastic was the precision pass across ice from Grace Kleinbach on the right-wing that eluded not one but two Minnesota defenders.
“I got (the puck) out to Grace wide so I could drive to the net,” Vlasic said. “Luckily, it was sitting right there after a great pass back to me by Grace. I just tried to backhand it toward the net and it found a hole.”
Anderson’s tally was a dazzling one-timer after taking a perfect pass from Doyle deep in Minnesota’s zone.
“Sometimes we were getting a little stuck down in their zone, so we figured if we flew the zone a little bit we might be able to spread things out and it worked for us in that instance,” Anderson said.
The Pod Won’t Give in to Adversity
The Whale’s passion and drive to succeed has been there throughout the 0-4-1 start to the NWHL campaign.
“Every season it’s always a big learning curve when it comes to trying to figure out which line combinations are best and which team partners work best together,” Orlando said. “With so many new players, trying to find the right chemistry is always a big thing.”
Rocket-Power Winger Fuels The Pod
Signed just days before the series against Minnesota, super-charged Madelyn Evangelous put on quite a show of spirited play for the hometown fans with her relentless pursuit in all three zones.
A case in point occurred midway through the first period on Saturday, when speedy No. 2 raced through the neutral zone on an odd-man rush by Minnesota and prevented a shot on Shelly with a well-timed poke check from behind.
Along with eight shots on goal and a blocked shot in five games, the Elmira College standout has been a disruptive force primarily on the Whale’s third line with Hanna Beattie and Kendra Broad.
Groundwork for Success is in Place
The Whale will continue to practice and work toward achieving a ‘W’ as the league goes on break for the next two weekends. The 2019 Four Nations Cup tournament was to have taken place Nov. 5-9 in Sweden, but that was cancelled in September long after the NWHL had finalized its schedule.
The Whale will return to regular-season competition on Sunday, Nov. 17 in Danbury against the Buffalo Beauts. Game time is 12:30 p.m.
The Connecticut/Minnesota NWHL matinee on Saturday was part of a pro hockey doubleheader in Danbury. The Danbury Hat Tricks of the Federal Prospects Hockey League played the second game of their season-opening weekend series that evening.