With the NWHL playoffs beginning, Today’s Slapshot’s women’s hockey reporters have come together to bring the readers their unique perspectives on the upcoming pair of matchups. Kate Cimini, who has been covering the league since its inception, has spent much of this season working with the Connecticut Whale. Kate took the time to answer some questions about the Whale’s first round series against the Buffalo Beauts in the inaugural Isobel Cup playoffs.
Today’s Slapshot: It was a tough end of the season for Connecticut, losing five of their last ten games. Can you pinpoint one thing that caused this slide?
Kate Cimini: One thing: no. Multiple things? Absolutely. First on the docket: motivation. The Whale seem to have lost a bit of their fire, which I think comes down to having so much change at the top. They lost three general managers and one head coach over the course of about 7 months. That’s a lot of change, not to mention the fact that I think the Whale has seen the most (and some of the more serious) injuries over the course of the season, which took out important depth and skill players at regular turns such as Jessica Koizumi, Shiann Darkangelo, Sam Faber, Anya Battaglino, Lindsay Berman, who played her first game back last week, Chelsea Laden and so on.
That’s not the only issue. The fact is, their systems weren’t up to snuff for much of the season. Though they have improved under Linstad, their disarray throughout much of the season is catching up to them, hence dropping those games against the Pride. It’s important to note who they lost to, however, as Boston, at this point, is clearly the best team in the league.
TSS: Boston handed Connecticut all of their losses. Obviously, Boston is a very different team than the Beauts. Do you think Buffalo can exploit the Whale’s weaknesses in the same way that Boston did?
KC: To a certain extent, yes. Buffalo plays a very smart game but not always a very skilled game, depending on who is in the lineup on a given night. When the Beauts have their full complement of National Team players they’re a very difficult opponent for Connecticut and can certainly give the Whale a run for their money. When they’re missing even one, however, the Whale have the skill edge to overwhelm them.
TSS: Three of their five losses came at home. Is there a Chelsea Piers curse, or is this just coincidence?
KC: No, they’re quite comfortable on home ice. This brings up an interesting point, though: while the Whale have a large number of players who live very close to the rink, approximately a third of the team has a commute of more than an hour to the rink. That could play into the fatigue factor since it’s a long day for them when they play at home.
TSS: Buffalo and Connecticut have played some very closely contested games – twice going to the shootout and once going to overtime. Connecticut has come out on top in each of the matchups. What is it about the Whale that gave them the edge in these close games?
KC: For quite a while it was that Buffalo was a comparatively weak team because they were missing a large chunk of their Canadian players.
During that time, Connecticut learned how Buffalo plays and has used that initial blueprint to their advantage over the rest of the season. It’s no coincidence that Buffalo has continued to lose to Connecticut after exhausting their at-home games, now taking the Whale on after traveling 8 hours on a bus. If the two teams were an hour or so apart, the tilts between Buffalo and Connecticut would be much more even at this point in the season.
TSS: Connecticut has had a tumultuous season off of the ice, including a coaching change late in the season. What has the team improved upon since Heather Linstad took over the head coaching job?
KC: Connecticut has tightened up its play, gotten more aggressive on the forecheck and is focused more on doing the little things right. Linstad pulls out her board every chance she gets on the bench and is focused on being a hands-on, teaching coach. Two months, however, might not be enough time to turn the clock back on the Whale’s passion.
TSS: Aside from their record, has anything gotten worse since Linstad began coaching?
KC: On the ice, I wouldn’t really say so. Their power play numbers have improved while the penalty kill has dipped slightly – never great when you have a team that takes as many penalties as Connecticut does.
Aside from that, their play is a bit crisper though they haven’t managed to truly play a full 60-minute game against Boston. Is that because of internal changes on the Whale or because they’re reacting to Boston getting more solid? I’d say a little bit of both, with slightly more emphasis on the fact that Boston has been on a tear.
Off the ice, the team seems to have been rocked a bit by all the changes. It’s hard to say how everything and everyone will shake out, especially with the end of the inaugural season coming up so quickly but the free agency period will be something to keep an eye on.
TSS: Does Connecticut have a keystone player – one that the team can’t afford to lose?
KC: Before Shiann Darkangelo was out of the lineup for four weeks I would have said her, and now that she’s been out of the lineup for four weeks I would still say her. Darkangelo is just as valuable as Stack on the ice, but she’s a bit more vocal off the ice and has been successful in the past at really firing her teammates up.
TSS: Game one’s starting lineup. Go.
KC: Forwards: Darkangelo-Stack-Babstock – I want to match skill for skill and with this line we have physicality, size, skill, and playmaking ability. I’d almost immediately put this line in the blender, though, so I could spread out the high shooting percentages across all three lines.
Defense: Doyle-Brickner – Both these players make excellent choices with the puck and can get physical when necessary. Doyle’s got a great shot and good hockey sense and Brickner is a very intelligent player with terrific vision.
Goaltender: Leonoff – Leonoff has historically not had great games against Boston but she stands on her head against Buffalo. There’s no doubt about it; she should be the starting goaltender for the semis.
TSS: Series prediction, including over/under line on combined penalty minutes.
KC: The Connecticut Whale will take it in 3 games with the Beauts winning the second game in the shootout. Buffalo will get a combined total of 10 PIM per game while Connecticut will earn a minimum of 18 PIM per game.
TSS: If the games go to a shootout, who are your three shooters?
KC: 1) Kelli Stack
2) Kelly Babstock
3) Shiann Darkangelo
These three have the highest shooting percentages for forwards on the team save Danielle Ward, whose strength lies in scrabbling around the net, not the shootout. If I went with anyone else, I’d have to examine my own head for signs of trauma.
TSS: True or false: Shiann Darkangelo is a crime fighting super hero. Defend your position.
KC: “Who was that masked woman?”
Today’s Slapshot would like to thank Kate for her time, and we hope you’ll check out the rest of the series, as Erik Wollschlager, Mike Murphy, and Hannah Bevis offer their perspectives on the playoff chances of the Buffalo Beauts, the New York Riveters, and the Boston Pride, respectively.
The Isobel Cup playoffs start Friday at 7pm ET.