The very first goal of the Connecticut Whale’s preseason was scored by left winger Micaela Long, a neat wrister that found its way past the U-17 Connecticut Junior Rangers goaltender, unleashing a torrent by Long’s fellow linemates. Her stick has been silent since then, despite her constant shooting on net.
Long has the third-most shots on goal on the team at 48 with only Kelli Stack and Kelly Babstock earning more, with 86 and 63 shots on goal respectively, and 14 and 13 goals apiece. By the law of averages, Long has had extremely bad luck.
In the first 16 games of the season, Long earned only assists, notching six. Two weeks ago, a switch flipped when Long notched her first goal of the regular season against the Boston Pride. Less than the length of one period later, she put another puck past Boston netminder Brittany Ott, doubling her goals for the season in no time at all.
In the game since Long has posted another assist and an empty-net goal, scored when the New York Riveters pulled goaltender (and former Whale) Chelsea Laden with less than a minute left in the third. Long sent a shot from beyond the blue line to seal up a 4-2 win for Connecticut.
“I think I’ve just been working hard all season,” said Long. “I kind of think I was kind of snakebitten for a while. So I’ve just been plugging, working hard and hoping once I got back to my old self then I’d be able to just start putting some pucks in the net.”
What was the difference for Long? It can’t be sheer coincidence that Long’s scoring –– and the scoring of other depth players –– began or increased with the change-up in systems after new head coach Heather Linstad came on board.
“We’re definitely playing a lot more aggressive, which is to my strong point,” Long said. “I would love to buzz around all day. Coach Linstad likes an aggressive forecheck which I think is my favorite style. We change up lines all the time so anyone you play with is a solid player.”
Brittany Dougherty, who scored her first goal of the season just a few weeks ago against Boston agreed.
“We’re just more organized. I respected both coaches but it’s a little more organized, and [Linstad] gives a lot of feedback. I think that’s the biggest difference that we’ve made.”
Part of the reason the Whale is seeing more depth scoring is that the Pride have correctly identified the most prolific scorers and are focused on tying them up and keeping the puck off their sticks. That means that depth players are getting more room and time with the puck than they have before, giving them more scoring opportunities.
Another part of the reason is Linstad’s approach.
Linstad has been focusing on details with the players, cleaning up their systems and their game bit by bit. She’s “percentages-focused,” players say, intent on making sure the Whale can put their best fin forward when it comes time to play the Buffalo Beauts in the postseason. Working on the penalty kill or the power play is just as important to her as which way a defender swings their hip when they first start skating backwards. Every step is an opportunity for either Connecticut or its opponents, Linstad insists, so why give up something players don’t have to?
Linstad and Zuba have focused on improving defensive zone coverage as well, which has led to fewer turnovers in the defensive zone as well as fewer opportunities for opposing forwards, period.
“I’m thinking now and evaluating (Connecticut’s play),” Linstad said. “I just want to make sure there’s one system that everybody’s playing. I think that that was the major thing. You’ve got a group of kids that played for so many different coaches and those kinds of things and sometimes, all of us, in anything that we do, we always go back to what’s comfortable.”
Linstad noted that some of her new players have tendencies to break the puck out of the zone through a pass up the boards to the wing, others tended to carry it themselves or find a certain player and send them a short pass, or a million other strategies that weren’t necessarily ones the team had gone over in practice.
“What I’ve been trying to do is just try to get them to be on the same page and just repeat what we’re trying to do, be it the forecheck, the penalty kill or those things, so everyone’s hearing the same voice, the same system,” said Linstad. “Just to make them more comfortable with everybody being on the same page. That said, it’s nice to coach these kids because they’ve been coached well and they have good ideas. It’s important to take their strengths and let them do what they’re comfortable with too, (sometimes). I’m just trying to meld those things together but it’s the end of the season and they’re going to build their own chemistry too.”
While the Whale lost to the Pride 5-3 in the first game Long scored, and 2-4 in the first game in which Dougherty scored, these goals represent a shift in the way the game is being played in Connecticut; a little bit more thoughtful, a little bit more organized and, for the Whale, hopefully more effectively.