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Whale hope to be quicker and stronger in year two in NWHL – The Collinsville Press
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Whale hope to be quicker and stronger in year two in NWHL

Two-time Olympian Kelli Stack returns for the Connecticut Whale, which opens their NWHL campaign on Sunday in Buffalo.

Two-time Olympian Kelli Stack returns for the Connecticut Whale, which opens their NWHL campaign on Sunday in Buffalo.

NORTHFORD – A year ago, the Connecticut Whale started off the initial season in the National Women’s Hockey League with a bang, winning 11 of their first 12 games including three shootout victories.

But Connecticut could never figure out a way to beat the NWHL champion Boston Pride, dropping five of six games. The Pride have five players who have played on the U.S. Olympic Team on their roster and five who played for the Americans in the 2016 world championship tournament. Eleven players were named to the NWHL All-Star team.

Boston caught the Whale with two weeks left in the regular season and swept Buffalo to capture the first Isobel Cup championship. The Whale (13-5) were beaten by Buffalo in a three-game series in the Isobel Cup semifinals, putting a damper on the campaign.

The season was a bit rocky off the ice, too, as Connecticut went through three general managers and had two coaches.

However, coach Heather Linblad and general manager Lisa Giovanelli have had a full offseason to improve the Connecticut lineup. The Whale look to be faster and younger this winter for the NWHL campaign that begins on Sunday in Buffalo as part of the league’s kickoff weekend. The Whale face the host Beauts on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Harbor Center.

Boston opens the season by taking on Buffalo on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. followed by a game on Saturday night with the New York Riverters challenging the Pride at 7:30 p.m. at the Harbor center.

Connecticut led by two-time Olympian Kelli Stack, a 5-foot-5 dynamo and defenseman Molly Engstrom, another two-time Olympian who played on the 2006 and 2010 U.S. Olympic teams. But the Whale added Dana Trivigno and Haley Skarupa, a pair of young rookie skaters from undefeated NCAA champion Boston College. Trivigno scored 57 goals in college while Skarupa scored 115 goals in her collegiate career.

Stack, Trivigno and Skarupa played on the U.S. team at the recent 2016 world championships and were named Wednesday to the U.S. team that will skate in the Four Nations Cup tournament in Finland this November. 

Canadian forward Kelly Babstock, the former Quinnipiac University star, returns along with forward Sam Faber.

Rookie Dana Trivigno, who played on the 2016 U.S. team at the World Championships, has joined the Whale for the 2016-17 season.

Rookie Dana Trivigno, who played on the 2016 U.S. team at the World Championships, has joined the Whale for the 2016-17 season.

“We’ll be quicker to the puck,” said Linblad, the former UConn and Northeastern University coach who begins her first full season in the NWHL. “We have speed. We’ll have good puck movement.”

Babstock had nine goals and 13 assists in 18 regular season games before scoring four goals in the playoffs against Buffalo. Stack had eight goals and 14 assists while Faber had three goals and three assists.

“Babstock brings a lot of energy,” Stack said. “She is so dangerous. Anytime she has the puck, she is a scoring threat from anywhere on the ice.”

Defensively, the Whale will led by Engstrom (3 goals, 2 assists), Jordan Brickner (7 assists) and spunky Canadian Shannon Doyle (2 goals, 3 assists). Another rookie from Boston College Kaliya Johnson looked sharp in two preseason games against the Russian national team.

“If we stay together as a team, especially in our defensive zone and make (opponents) come through us, we can nullify some of the offense that way,” Linblad said.

In goal, look for Nicole Stock and Shenae Lundberg to split time in net. Stock went 3-2 (2.62 GAA) as a backup behind Jamie Leonoff (7-3, 2.96 GAA) a year ago. Leonoff signed with New York in the offseason but will be lost for the season with a hip injury.

Shiann Darkangelo, who also played on the 2016 U.S. team at the world championships, signed with Buffalo in the off season. Darkangelo was Connecticut’s leading scorer with 10 goals and three assists. The team’s first captain Jessica Koizumi (2 goals, 5 assists) retired in August to become an assistant coach at Ohio State. Veteran defenseman Kaleigh Fratkin (5 goals, 10 assists) signed with New York as a free agent in the off season.

There is plenty of optimism around the Whale, who split a pair of exhibition games with the Russian national team last week in Northford. “It’s the second year,” Engstrom said. “It’s a chance to build on what we created last year.”

How does one compete with Boston, a veteran team with talent all over the ice?

“Go to work,” Engstrom said with a smile and a shrug. “We have to be in better shape. They play three periods and 60 minutes. Last year, we played in spurts but we couldn’t hang.”

Added Stack, “We have to set the tone in every game we come into. The biggest key for us will be to set the tone every period and coming out just as strong in the second and third period as we did in the first period.”

Connecticut's Kelly Babstock (8) tries to skate through a pair of defenders from the Russian National Team in a exhibition game in Northford last week.

Connecticut’s Kelly Babstock (8) tries to skate through a pair of defenders from the Russian National Team in a exhibition game in Northford last week.

Connecticut will have to get a good start with their first six games on the road. The Whale don’t play in their new home at the Northford Ice Arena in the Northford section of North Branford until Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. when they host Buffalo. Ten of the final 15 games of the 21-game schedule will be at home.

The Northford Ice Arena, which can seat up 1,200 fans, is the former home of the Quinnipiac University men’s hockey team.

A year ago, the Whale played at Chelsea Piers in Stamford which could seat a few hundred fans but many simply stood around the rink. The Whale did sell out several games with an announced crowd of 600 fans. Connecticut did play one game each at Ingalls Rink at Yale and one game at the Danbury Ice Arena.

2016 Connecticut Whale schedule
Sunday, Oct. 9                 at Buffalo (Harbor Center), 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 16               at New York (Newark, NJ), 5 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 23               at Buffalo, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 12            at Boston (Warrior Arena, Brighton), 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 20              at New York, 4 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 3              at Boston, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 10            BUFFALO, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 11              at New York, 5 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 18              NEW YORK, 3 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 7              BUFFALO, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 15               BOSTON, 3 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 27                 BOSTON, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 29               NEW YORK, 3 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 4              at Boston, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 19              at New York, 3 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 24                BOSTON, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 26              at Buffalo, 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 5             BUFFALO, 3 p.m.
Sunday, March 12           BUFFALO, 3 p.m.
Sunday, March 19           NEW YORK, 3 p.m.
Saturday, April 15            at Boston, noon

2016 National Women’s Hockey League
                          W   L  OL
Boston               14  3   1
Connecticut       13  5   0
Buffalo                5   9   4
New York            4 12   2

Final NWHL 2015-16 regular season statistics
POINTS                         G     A   
Pts
Hilary Knight, Bos          15   18  33

Brianna Decker, Bos      14   15  29
Kelli Stack, CT                 8   14  22
Kelly Babstock, CT          9   13  22
Kelley Steadman, Buff   13    7   20
Jordan Smelker, Bos       9  10   19
K. Kunichika, Buff            9    8   17
Meghan Duggan, Buff    6   10   16
Kaleigh Fratkin, CT        5   10   15
Bray Ketchum, NY         10   4   14
Devon Skeats, Buff         9   5    14
Gigi Marvin, Bos             5   9    14
Jillian Dempsey, Bos      7   7    14
Brooke Ammerman, NY 4   10  14
Kacey Bellamy, Bos       2    12  14
Shiann Darkangelo, CT 10    3  13
Megan Bozek, Buff         3   10  13
Jordan Brickner, CT       0   13   13

GOALS, 2016                G     A   Pts
Hilary Knight, Bos          15    18  33

Brianna Decker, Bos      14   15   29
Kelley Steadman, Buff   13    7    20
Bray Ketchum, NY         10    4    14
Shiann Darkangelo, CT 10    3    13
Kelly Babstock, CT          9   13    22
Jordan Smelker, Bos       9   10   19
Kunichika, Buff                9     8    17
Devon Skeats, Buff         9     5    14
Kelli Stack, CT                8    14    22
Jillian Dempsey, Bos      7      7    14
Amanda Pelkey, Bos      7      3    10

ASSISTS, 2016              G     A   Pts
Hilary Knight, Bos          15   18   33

Brianna Decker, Bos      14   15   29
Kelli Stack, CT                8    14   22
Kelly Babstock, CT         9    13   22
Jordan Brickner, CT       0    13   13
Kacey Bellamy, Bos       2    12   14
Kaleigh Fratkin, CT        5    10   15
Jordan Smelker, Bos       9   10   19
Meghan Duggan, Buff    6    10   16
Brooke Ammerman, NY 4    10   14
Megan Bozek, Buff         3    10   13
Emily Pfalzer, Buff          2    10   12

GOALIE GAA          W-L   GAA  SO
Brittany Ott, Bos        12-1   1.94    1

Nicole Stock, CT        4-1     2.62    0
Jamie Leonoff, CT     7-3     2.96    0
Nana Fujimoto, NY    4-8     3.28    0
B. McLaughlin, Buff   4-6     3.48    0

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years.

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