Shannon Doyle knows what to expect when she takes the ice next weekend. She’s been in this situation before. Just last season, the career-long member of the Connecticut Whale participated in the NWHL’s first-ever post-season play-in game. And much like last season, a campaign that closed with Connecticut losing the wild-card contest, the Whale captain understands her team isn’t set to be enter action as the favorite.
That’s not meant to be a slight against the Whale. It’s simply a fact. As Connecticut prepares for its final regular season meetings of the season, a two-game weekend set against the second-place Minnesota Whitecaps, the Whale do so with the worst record in the NWHL. Of the 22 games they’ve played this season, Connecticut has won two. Doyle isn’t the least bit discouraged by what the standings have to say, though, especially given the win-and-you’re-in nature of the game.
“It favors a team with nothing to lose,” Doyle said.
Be that as it may, there’s more than enough statistical data to consider the Whale a longshot to earn a berth in the NWHL’s final four. To wit, Connecticut’s 35 goals are the fewest in the circuit and their minus-56 goal differential is a dozen worse than the Buffalo Beauts against whom Connecticut will play in the March 6 affair to decide the last combatant in the Isobel Cup semifinals. Furthermore, only one Whale player has a double-digit point total and only one has scored more than four goals. By comparison, the Beauts have eight skaters with 10 or more points. They also have two 20-point scorers and one of the league’s most lethal goal scorers, Taylor Accursi. She’s fourth in the NWHL with 16 tallies and could climb the goal-scoring race with a big final weekend against the Metropolitan Riveters.
What the numbers don’t illustrate, however, is how Connecticut has grown throughout this season. Doyle preached the blue-collar work ethic the team has adopted and spoke about the way the Whale can frustrate the opposition with tight-checking hockey. Said Whale GM Bray Ketchum, that's the result of a shift in mentality in the time since coach Colton Orr – yes, nearly 500-game NHL veteran Colton Orr – stepped behind the bench. Before his arrival, the team struggled to find its identity. Now, they’ve found it.
“We're a gritty team,” Ketchum said. “We want to make life hard for every team we play and we don't want any team to come out with an easy win. If they're going to win, they're going to win the right way.”
Though that doesn’t bear out in the standings, it does in the box scores. As Doyle put it, Connecticut may have struggled to win games throughout this season, but rare are the blowouts. Within the Whale dressing room, there’s a belief they can hang with any team, particularly when they can piece together the elusive full 60-minute performance.
“When we have done it, we've taken Boston to overtime and a shootout,” Doyle said. “We've taken Minnesota to the wire, taken Buffalo on some rollercoaster rides that were high-scoring games. It's not like we've been sitting here and losing every single game by this span that is completely unattainable that we're like, 'Yeah, this is the end of the season here, guys.' No. We know we can play with these teams and we're excited to have that opportunity to put together the hockey we know we can, come out on top and move forward.”
Much of the Whale’s post-season hopes will be pinned upon the performance of goaltender Brooke Wolejko, who has been a star in the crease since earning the top job in December. Her .917 save percentage ranks third in the league and she’s made 30-plus saves in eight of the 11 games in which she’s played at least half the contest. On four occasions, she’s turned aside 46 or more shots. Doyle said Wolejko's performance is a testament not only to her own effort, but the efforts of the entire crease contingent, which includes Sonjia Shelley and Cassandra Goyette.
"In my opinion, we're blessed with the three best goalies in the league," Doyle said. "When one goalie finds success like Brooke is right now, it's a compliment to all three of them. They've all worked hard to push each other to the place that one is right now. That's definitely one area where we're feeling a lot more confident and we know that we have that strength behind us."
And if strong goaltending is matched by an offensive outburst, the Whale believe there’s no reason they can’t become an unexpected opponent for the top-seeded Boston Pride come next Sunday. From there, maybe an upset of epic proportions could be in the cards.
“I'm sure there are teams that are thinking, 'If we see Connecticut, it's going to be easy,' but I think that's what's exciting. It's one game. You're either in or you're out,” Ketchum said. “We're going to bring our best group and put our best foot forward and see what happens. It's kind of fun being the underdog if that's what people are thinking of us as.”
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