PHOTO BY MICHELLE JAY
As the Connecticut Whale get set to host their season opener against Buffalo on Sunday, we knew the best insider to reach for insight on the team and the game.
Erica Ayala is entering her second full season as the analyst in the broadcast booth alongside Phil Giubileo for all Whale broadcasts on Twitter and YouTube from Terry Conners Ice Rink in Stamford. Ayala has a keen eye for the game and a reporter’s instinct for information.
We asked Ayala to tackle five questions about the 2018-19 season and the challenge of facing the deep lineup of the Beauts.
The Whale have a fascinating, global roster of talent this season. What will be the key to them challenging for the Isobel Cup in 2018-19?
Yes, the variety of International experience on the 2018-19 roster is something I am eager to highlight throughout the season. Anytime you can bring players with Olympic experience into the fold, that is going to offer a great deal of leadership and poise to a roster.
The Whale have three players with Olympic experience: Randi Griffin (Korea, '18 Olympics), Michelle Löwenhielm (Sweden, '14 Olympics) and goaltender Meeri Räisänen (Finland, '14 & '18 Olympics). Additionally, Russian goalie Mariya Sorokina, a 2016 IIHF World Championship bronze medalist, joins The Pod this season.
The Whale proved to be a hard-working team last season. The experience of the aforementioned players should help the Whale bring their game to the next level.
Do you believe this is a team that will rely on its strong goaltending and defense and try to win close, low-scoring games?
As was the case last season, goaltending and defense will be key for every NWHL team. The league continues to get stronger, and this season, all eyes are on the goalies. Most of the Whale veterans – Jordan Bricker, Shannon Doyle, Elena Orlando, and of course player-coach Cydney Roesler – just happen to play defense. So, no question…the blueliners will be key for Connecticut.
With that said, the Whale relied too heavily last season on Sydney Rossman (now in Minnesota) and the defensive core. I'd like to see Connecticut utilize their skill in the back to move the puck into the offensive zone and get quality scoring chances for their forwards.
PHOTO BY MATTHEW RANEY
PHOTO BY MATTHEW RANEY
Who are the players you’re most intrigued to watch on the Whale this season?
I believe things will start with the Whale veterans, including top scorer from last season Emily Fluke. Fans should key an eye out on pseudo-rookie Sam Donovan (who joined the team in March after college), as well as true rookie Nina Rodgers as well.
When you consider all of the new and exciting players on Buffalo and Connecticut, the home opener on Sunday has been marked as one of the best games on the schedule. Do you have any idea what to expect from this matchup?
Historically, these two teams have provided an exciting, physical style of hockey for NWHL fans. Both teams have a nice balance of veteran players and superstar-level newcomers that will take this matchup to the next level.
I expect a fast game, especially from Buffalo, right from the start. There will be some feeling out for both teams, but not too much. The Beauts got the better of the Whale in the preseason, so I expect Connecticut to come out strong, especially for the home opener in front of Cetacean Nation and the rest of the Whale fanbase.
Since you’re a regular presence at Whale games, what would you say to fans considering taking in their games this season? What is the experience of seeing the Whale and their fans up-close like for the fans?
On that note, since the days at Chelsea Piers, Whale fans have been some of the most loyal in the NWHL. Connecticut fans love hockey and especially love to follow the careers of the Quinnipiac University alumnae from college to the pros. I have every reason to believe that Sunday will be more of the same. I am also eager to catch up with former Whale forward Kelly Babstock, who I'm sure will get a roaring cheer…at least until the puck drops!
In addition to working on the NWHL broadcasts, Erica writes for The Ice Garden and co-hosts their NWHL-centric podcast, The Founding 4 Podcast. She also curates the hockey edition of The IX Newsletter and will host a new NWHL show for the Toronto-based Barn Burners podcast network. In the off-season, Erica covers the WNBA, NWSL, and a variety of other sporting events such as the NCAA Final Four, USA & Canada Basketball, and the NHL Draft.