ALL PHOTOS BY TROY PARLA
In 16 games last season, the Connecticut Whale finished with only three wins and eight points, finishing in last place for the second consecutive season. This season through five games they’ve already picked up three points and over their past three games (1-1-1) they’ve had possibly their best stretch of play since their inaugural season. They’ve been more competitive and, according to their new captain Emily Fluke, they’re not satisfied with just being competitive anymore.
“When the pucks don’t bounce your way it stinks to lose. But we’re proud of the way we played. We battled really hard. We think we won the majority of the battles,” Fluke said after her team’s shootout loss in New Jersey. “That’s something we’re proud of. We stayed with them the whole game. We had the lead. They get a late one and end up winning in a shootout. We were able to get a win (against the Rivs) last week; we got a point today. We just talked about it in the locker room that now we’re a team that is not just satisfied with getting a point, and that’s a good thing.”
For the second consecutive season the Whale have revamped a large part of their team, especially their goaltenders and forwards, but Fluke feels like they’ve really come together in the midst of six consecutive games away from their home rink in Stamford, Connecticut. “We had a (bit of a) slower start to our season in just trying to get everybody coming to the rink,” she said with a chuckle.
“We had people coming from all over the place with our international players. Just getting to that cohesive team unit took a little while, but we feel like we’ve hit our stride and are making progress. I’d say we’re farther along than last year. If you look at the scores at this time last year it was probably like 5-0, so we’re not happy to tie but we’re above where we were last year.”
With the retirement of Sam Faber this summer the Whale needed a new captain and coach Ryan Equale turned to Fluke, who led Connecticut in points (11) as a rookie last season, had two of their three game-winning goals, and was one of four players to play in every game. Having that ‘C’ stitched on her jersey is something that the 26-year-old does not take lightly.
“It’s a huge honor. I think it’s such a privilege to be in the league, so to have any sort of leadership role is truly humbling, and it’s a privilege to be the captain of this team,” said Fluke, smiling. “It’s going really well. I love this team. It’s definitely different, you have different responsibilities. We want to be together as one, just making sure that everybody’s on the same page. Being in charge of that is a different role, but it’s exciting and something I’m looking forward to (as the season goes on).”
One of the other changes this season with the Whale is that defender Cydney Roesler has taken on the role of assistant coach when she’s not patrolling the blueline. According to Fluke, the transition has been nearly seamless. “It has been smooth, and I think it helps that she’s been in the league; this is her third season. She’s really set herself aside as a leader anyway, before this season,” Fluke said. “When you have somebody with that experience, and that leadership, it has been a really smooth transition. Nobody thinks it’s weird. When she’s dressed and playing, she’s ready to go. When she’s coaching she really takes control of the room and provides really good feedback because of the experience she has.”
One rookie for Connecticut that hasn’t needed too much guidance thus far is Katerina Mrázová, who has been magnificent as Fluke’s linemate and currently has a three-game goal scoring streak. Mrázová has the team lead with five points (4g-1a) and 19 shots on goal, leads the NWHL in power play goals (2) and is the Whale’s leader in the face-off circle as well.
“She’s an incredible player; you’ve seen that in her. She had two goals today (against the Riveters) and she has a knack for getting goals; she goes to the net. You don’t have to tell her to pass or shoot,” said Fluke with a laugh, “she’s always going to make the right play. When you have confidence in someone like that it makes it so much easier to play with them.”
This upcoming weekend the Whale will have a designated home game in a neutral site — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — where they played a game last season against the Buffalo Beauts. This time their opponent will be the Riveters, in the rubber match of three consecutive games between the two squads. The game will be held at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, the training facility for the Pittsburgh Penguins, at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available at NWHL.zone/tickets.
Fluke told us she is looking forward to head back to the ‘Burgh where she potted a goal last season and got to meet some enthusiastic NWHL fans.
“Last year was super exciting and we had a huge fanbase; it was a lot of fun,” said the Massachusetts native. “A lot of fans came in from Ohio and other different states - last year when we were doing the postgame autographs we had fans from all over the place and they were telling us it was their first NWHL game: ‘I usually can only watch on TV! I’m so excited to be here!’ I think we’ll have a lot of that at this game and I’m looking forward to seeing that new fanbase and meeting them all afterwards. It’ll be exciting.”