RED-HOT WHITECAPS READY FOR TEST AGAINST RISING WHALE
By Mike Murphy
The first time that the Minnesota Whitecaps played the Connecticut Whale in the 2019-20 season they roasted them in a 7-2 victory on Oct. 26. However, the next three meetings between the clubs were very different. Minnesota squeaked by the Whale with one-goal victories on Oct. 27 and Dec. 22 and shut them out 3-0 on Dec. 21.
Now more than ever, the Whitecaps know they can’t take Saturday’s visitors to TRIA lightly. It’s a new year and it looks like we might just have a new Whale.
Over the last two weekends the Whale have taken the undefeated Boston Pride to a shootout and earned their first victory of the season against the Metropolitan Riveters. The Whitecaps, on the other hand, are coming off a dominant weekend series against the Buffalo Beauts where they outscored the visiting team by a combined score of 15-3. In other words, both the Whitecaps and the Whale are trending in the right direction and neither team wants to lose their momentum this weekend with just eight games remaining in the regular season.
Between the Pipes
Look out Lovisa Selander, you have some serious competition for Goaltender of the Year.
Amanda Leveille, the NWHL’s all-time leader in wins and saves, has taken her game to the highest level in recent weeks. She is just one win away from her third consecutive 11-win season and has held opposing teams to two goals or less in her last eight starts. Since the start of December, the All-Star goalie has been virtually impossible to beat at even strength.
Leveille leads the NWHL with a 13.13 GSAA (goals saved above average) and 944:10 total ice time. Allie Morse saw her first NWHL action in the third period of last Sunday’s game against the Beauts, but we should expect lots of Leveille this weekend.
At the other end of the rink, the Whale’s improved play has been fueled by exceptional goaltending from Brooke Wolejko and Sonjia Shelly.
Wolejko, who may be the most underrated goalie in the league, has a .917 save percentage this season while facing an average workload of 41.55 SA60 (shots against per 60 minutes) – the highest average in the league by a wide margin. She was in net when the Whale defeated the Riveters by a score of 4-3 on Jan. 11 and has played her way into sharing Connecticut’s crease with Shelly.
Shelly has rebounded in a big way after a rocky first two months. She has earned a .937 save percentage in her last three starts, including a 53-save performance against the Pride last Sunday. Like Wolejko, she has thrived when seeing a lot of action and has already turned in four performances making 40 or more saves.
The Whitecaps’ offense is white-hot right now, but the Whale excel at limiting prime scoring chances with their defense-first style of play. The winner of Saturday and Sunday’s games will likely come down to goaltending and if the Whale can whether the storm and speed of Minesota’s offense.
Curtis and Richards
The Whitecaps missed Jonna Curtis in a big way when she went down with an injury against the Riveters on Dec. 14. She returned on the weekend of Jan. 4 but was kept out of the box score. Last weekend against the Beauts was a different story.
Curtis helped spearhead the Whitecaps’ offense against Buffalo, scoring two goals and picki ng up two primary assists. With the 2019 NWHL Newcomer of the Year healthy and on her game, the Whitecaps look like a different team. She is third on the team in scoring (17) even after missing three games and is tied for second on the team in primary points (15) with Nicole Schammel; Allie Thunstrom leads the Whitecaps with 18 primary points.
During Curtis’ absence, fellow 2020 NWHL All-Star Audra Richards carved out a feature role for herself in Minnesota’s offense. Richards has points in seven of her last eight games and is coming off her own four-point weekend against the Beauts. When she was with the Riveters last year in 2018-19, she scored six of her eight goals against the Whale. This season, she has four assists in four games against Connecticut. The Whale need to keep a close eye on the All-Star winger.
Tickets for the Whitecaps games against the Whale Saturday at 1 p.m. CST and Sunday at 3 p.m. CST are available at whitecaps.nwhl.zone/tickets. Fans can also grab their tickets for the 2020 NWHL All-Star Weekend in Boston at nwhl.zone/allstar. All Whitecaps and Whale games can be watched streaming live and free on the NWHL on Twitch.
Photo Credit: Bryan Johnson