Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Beauts was a heartbreaker for the Connecticut Whale. Assistant coach Lisa Giovanelli Zuba was at an absolute loss for words when it came time to address the team after the game. “I just…” she trailed off, shaking her head.
Before the last contest of the semifinals began, head coach Heather Linstad said, “How about this: we play our system out there and we play one system out there,” when asked what the team had to do differently in Game Three than Game Two.
Though Connecticut mostly stuck to its system, it simply could not come together to get the puck in the net enough times. They trailed Buffalo from the very first goal and never managed to pull ahead, allowing Buffalo forward Kelley Steadman far too much time with the puck.
After the game, called “a good hockey game” by nearly everyone in attendance–one that went back and forth between both zones, saw top-shelf wristers, five-hole goals, a number of attempts at garbage goals–Connecticut players leaving the dressing room were shellshocked. They knew going into Sunday’s game a loss was one of two possible outcomes but they clearly hadn’t expected it to happen to them.
The day before the Whale players were upset by the loss but accepting. They knew the second period wasn’t their strongest and that desperation they came back with, while the mother of invention, did not make for terrific play in the third.
“Just playing every shift. You can’t take a shift off,” forward Kelly Babstock had said Saturday, looking forward to Sunday. “We weren’t playing a 60-minute game (in Game Two).”
Effort, sticking it out and playing a full 60 minutes have been issues for Connecticut for months. For the top-ranked team, undefeated for the first half of the season, the change was bewildering. Where had this ennui come from, this tendency to rest on one’s laurels? Taken objectively, with the benefit of hindsight, it was not surprising at all.
Timing is everything.
The Whale faced an uneven start to the season. A team that seemed to click right away on the ice, they were coached by Jake Mastel, who, though passionate and hard-working, was not as focused on tactics and systems as other coaches in the league. Unbelievably, this worked to the Whale’s advantage.
Mastel drilled them on conditioning, which, when faced with teams such as the Riveters and Beauts, was what mattered the most. As long as the Whale could outlast their opponents, they could win, and outlast them they did. Systems, however, were still scattered.
Connecticut did not drop a game until December. Then, they lost a general manager in Harry Rosenholtz, soon lost a head coach in Mastel, a third general manager when interim GM and NWHL COO George Speirs resigned (Chris Ardito was the first general manager who resigned in July, before the season even began) and gained a new head coach in Heather Linstad. At some point throughout these tumultuous eight weeks, the Whale began to struggle.
A little change is good. A lot of change, not so much.
Making their way through three different general managers, a head coach, seeing multiple teammates entertain relatively serious injuries, all the while still playing a different team each Sunday took a toll. Although players didn’t necessarily have much contact with a general manager after Harry Rosenholtz resigned, Speirs’s resignation for the league still left the team rudderless. With no one person at the head offices responsible for Connecticut, no one was really looking out for the team. Connecticut appeared to be the forgotten team.
On March 5, the Whale saw that struggle end their season.
Was the loss a surprise to the team? “Uh, yes. Absolutely,” said forward Micaela Long in an interview later in the week. “But at the same time, you know, every team in the league is beatable. For the most part it’s pretty even. You know, it’s, any given Sunday. You can’t take any game lightly. Not that we took it lightly at all, but every game against Buffalo has been close. So before, yes, we came out with a win, but at the same time they were always neck and neck.”
“I was in shock, a little bit. I definitely thought we would win, I had all the confidence in the world we would win. But you know, they showed up and they were back-and-forth games of straight hockey,” Long continued. “At the end of the day the puck favors one team more so than the other. They came away with the W.
“I think a lot got thrown at us. GMs, coaches, even practice time,” she added. “We had a hard schedule. I mean, you can kind of blame it on everything. At the end of the day, we had to show up to play. Hats off to Buffalo, but that was tough.”
This offseason must see Connecticut make drastic changes in its front office, namely, prioritizing the creation of one.
If there’s one thing the Connecticut Whale’s season illustrated, it was just how essential consistency is to a season, and how much damage off-ice upheaval can do.