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Connecticut Whale make major statement in PHF series with champion Boston Pride

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

By Rick Menning

DANBURY, CT -- Never has a weekend of professional women's hockey had more of an impact on a league and a franchise than the two-game series at the Danbury Ice Arena on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 13 and 14.

When the Connecticut Whale hosted the defending Isobel Cup Champion Boston Pride on the western side of the I-84 rivalry, it was not only the marquee attraction in the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) but it was also magnified by being the only match-up on the league's schedule.

With the entire PHF universe focused on the captivating showdown, it was the Whale who set the pace, trapped along the boards, dominated the faceoff circle, killed off one penalty after another, effectively cycled the puck, displayed consistent forechecking and poke checking and gave Boston fits with their disruptive style.

In fact, were it not for the Pride's equalizing goal to make it 3-3 with less than 40 seconds to go in regulation and then the overtime winner on Saturday, the Whale might have been savoring a weekend sweep.

Nevertheless, to respond to that disappointing 4-3 setback with an amazing display of execution and determination in a 3-1 victory on Sunday certainly raised more than a few eyebrows throughout women's hockey.

Emma Vlasic scored the decisive goal as the Whale surged back from a tough overtime loss on Saturday with a dazzling 3-1 victory over the defending Isobel Cup champion Boston Pride on Sunday. (Photon credit: Premier Hockey Federation/Connecticut Whale.)

Alternate captain Emma Vlasic was among the many catalysts behind Connecticut's sensational performance in game two against Boston. The graduate of Yale University just up the road in New Haven not only scored what proved to be the game-winner but also continued to dominate in the faceoff circle as she upped her weekend total to 31.

"If we can get possession right off the draw, that helps us start our attack that much faster so it definitely is big (to win faceoffs)," said Vlasic, who in the 2019-20 campaign finished third in the league in faceoff percentage (57.95) and earned an All-Star selection. "Especially in this league, it's so important to start with the puck and win those draws."

Affectionately nicknamed "Pickles," she and her teammates took the ice Sunday with the right mindset and that paved the way for the huge response. In all, it was a matter of staying with the team philosophy and game plan.

Back at the Milford Ice Arena on Tuesday night for meetings, video sessions and a spirited practice in preparation for their visit to Toronto this weekend, Vlasic and her teammates were as focused as ever on the task at hand.

"We're sticking to our systems and we're playing as a group," Vlasic said. "We're playing fast; we're focusing on a defensive-first mindset . If we take care of the defensive zone, we're a good offensive team so we know when we go up the ice we'll get those (scoring) chances."

Vlasic, who in her rookie season (before the pandemic) led the Whale in goals with nine, also provided a pair of assists on Saturday. Her five total points thus far this season place her in a tie for most points with teammates Kennedy Marchment and Alyssa Wohlfeiler.

A big confidence boost

Marchment, a free agent pickup who played the past three seasons in the Swedish Women's Hockey League (SDHL), had the primary assist on Vlasic's goal. She finished the Boston series with four points after recording two goals and a helper on Saturday.

The former St. Lawrence University standout leads the Connecticut skaters in shots on goal thus far with 19. Right behind with the double-digit rockets toward net are Taylor Girard (15) and Wolfheiler (10).

"For me personally, being my second weekend in the league, I was able to get into a better routine and settle in with the team. It's great," Marchment said of her all-around play and the honor of being selected as the PHF's First Star of the Week in a Monday announcement.

Always willing to get into the dirty areas and battle through the traffic around the crease, she combines grit and tenacity while approaching each game in the PHF with the same mindset that has brought her success throughout her career.

"I just try to always be ahead of the puck and lead (the flow of) the game on my shift," Marchment said. "I think one of my biggest strengths is my hockey IQ. I just go out there knowing what to do and play my game."

Solid between the posts

After providing numerous great saves while the Whale was killing off five straight penalties in Saturday's third period, Connecticut netminder Abbie Ives made a valiant effort to stop the game-tying goal as it trickled just past her and inside the far post.

Former Quinnipiac University goaltender Abbie Ives squares up to the puck during action against Boston. Ives turned back 50 shots, including 20 in Sunday's victory over the Pride. (Photo credit: Connecticut Whale.)

The Pride had pulled their goalie for the 6-on-5 advantage and created traffic on the right side of the net during the flurry that brought the score even at 3-3.

Boston then notched the clincher during the 3-on-3 OT session.

Answering the challenge to perform in back-to-back contests, Ives more than succeeded with 50 total saves in the two games against Boston. The Bedford Hills, N.Y. native followed up her 30 saves on Saturday with 20 more on Sunday.

"For me, it was just a matter of moving on from all the external things that happened (Saturday) and focusing on my play and what I can do better," said Ives, who enjoyed a sparkling career in goal at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.

"I just tried to do the best I could to execute on Sunday," she continued. "I think we all did that and it went well. For me (in goal), I just try to be square (to the puck) and patient and I try not to go chasing anything."

And while faced with the tough situation of having to stave off five Pride advantages in one period, Ives said she just tries to keep everything in perspective.

"I try not to play with any emotion at all. It's hard and it's a constant battle to block out that emotion but I find that I'm more successful when I completely tune it out and get to work on doing my part to help kill (penalties) off," Ives said. "I just try to make sure my positioning is right and anticipate correctly."

Praise from the booth

"This is a signature win," ESPN+ and PHF announcer Steve Goldstein said on air when the final buzzer sounded lifting Connecticut to a 2-1-1 record after four games.

Goldstein and fellow broadcaster Katie Gaus marveled throughout Sunday's matinee at the perseverance and willpower of the Whale.

"The Whale obviously have very short memories," Gaus said on the telecast during a first period that saw Connecticut hold Boston to four shots on net. "They're not showing any sign of being down (emotionally) after Saturday's (tough loss)."

Both Goldstein and Gaus are also members of the National Hockey League Florida Panthers broadcast team which, along with the players and coaching staff, supported and encouraged the Whale during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season. The Panthers organization still regularly sends out tweets of good luck to the Whale prior to all games this season.

Emotional roller coaster

Here were the undefeated Pride, coming off a sweep over the Minnesota Whitecaps at home the previous weekend, facing a Whale squad that while in New Jersey lost its opener 4-1 and faced a 3-0 deficit before rallying to defeat the Metropolitan Riveters, 6-5, in the second game at Morristown.

The Whale-Pride drama unfolded in a way that had more than a few viewers on the edge of their seats during the national (ESPN+) and international ( telecasts that involved 120 minutes of action over a period of about 27 hours.

Would this be a showcase for the defending title holders to display their power and dominance as one of the top franchises in the league for many years, or could the hard-working home state Whale warriors rise to the occasion and pull off something very, very special?

The answer was the latter.

Yes, it was only the second series of the PHF season for both squads, but the two-game set was the focal point of the women's professional hockey world. For the Connecticut Whale to work through all the highs and lows and ultimately turn in the all-around performance they did was exemplary and highly commendable.

Upcoming Whale sighting

The Connecticut Whale will be a part of history this weekend (Nov. 20-21) when they travel to Toronto for a two-game showdown with the Six in that team's inaugural home series. Puck drop in both the Saturday and Sunday games is at 2 p.m. and can be viewed on the ESPN+ network.

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