By Andrew Weiss – National Women’s Hockey League
The lights shone bright on the ice as the Connecticut Whale were welcomed into their new home in Northford. With the Russian National Team in town, former Quinnipiac stars Kelly Babstock and Cydney Roesler made the homecoming a rousing success, scoring a goal apiece as the Whale stormed back to defeat the Russians 3-2.
The Whale’s goals were scored by Meagan Mangene, Kelly Babstock, and defenseman Cydney Roesler, who potted the game winner with 5:27 left in the third period. Shenae Lundberg stopped 18 in her start, while Nicole Stock finished with 10 saves in relief, picking up the win. Former Quinnipiac forward Nicole Connery added an assist, totaling three points on the night for former Bobcats. Molly Engstrom also chipped with in two assists. Russia’s goals both came from Liudmila Belyakova in the second period, while Russian goaltender Maria Sorokina made 15 saves in the loss.
Russia started off flying in the first period, outshooting Connecticut six to one after ten minutes of play. However, the speed of the Whale back-checkers prevented any golden chances, with both Ivana Bilic and Haley Skarupa breaking up odd-man situations in the throughout the period.
Playing in their first game of the season, the Whale quickly shook off their rust before Mangene scored the game’s first goal near the end of the period. Engstrom had her first shot attempt blocked before eventually regaining possession on a pass from Shannon Doyle, her defensive partner. Her second shot found the stick of Mangene, who deflected past the outstretched glove of Sorokina.
Her goal was answered by two goals from former Riveter Liudmila Belyakova, both coming in the second period. Belyakova found twine after a pass from Iya Gavrilova found her stick alone in front of Lundberg. The tap in tied the game for Russia, and they continued to pound the Whale net.
Coach Linstad sent Stock in to relieve Lundberg after the first Russian goal, but Belyakova continued to create chances around the Whale net. Stock left a juicy rebound on another Belyakova shot, which the Russian pounced on, putting the puck in the net for a 2-1 Russian lead and her second goal of the game.
The Whale penalty kill held firm in the second, with rookies Nicole Kosta and Connery both making strong cases to remain on special teams. Both rookies also saw time on the Whale’s only power play of the second period, with both shots in the two minutes coming from Connery.
The Whale would battle back in the third period. Kelli Stack and Anna Shibanova received matching minor penalties after some chippy play near the Russian bench. Soon after, the Whale found themselves on the power play as Yekaterina Smolentseva took a tripping penalty just 28 seconds into the four-on-four action.
This time, the advantage proved bountiful for Connecticut, as Babstock struck the back of the net for a power play goal. Both Connery and Engstrom picked up an assist on the goal.
“There was no one in front of me, so I had to shoot it,” said Babstock. “Or else,” she added, after a look from Coach Linstad.
Only 1:40 later, Connecticut took the lead on a goal from Roesler, the first of her professional career. “It’s a goal of mine to contribute more offensively this year than I did in college,” said Roesler. “It was great (because) I just whacked the puck to the net… (Stack’s) rebound came to me.” Her head coach agreed. “We want our (defenders) all the time to jump into the play and be smart about it,” said Linstad. “We established that in the very first practice.”
With only minutes remaining, the Whale refused to let the Russians pull Sorokina. Russia struggled to possess the puck in Connecticut’s zone, and the Whale pressed Sorokina with dump ins and shots until the final buzzer. The game ended with the puck behind Sorokina’s net.
Connecticut went 1-4 on the power play, while Russia went 0-3. The Whale will look to add to their impressive special teams this year after leading the league in both categories last season.
Linstad’s prognosis was certainly optimistic: ““I think we played fairly well. Obviously they had a step on us a little bit because they’ve been playing some games. For our first game I think we did a really good job of dictating play at certain times.”