PWHL

The PWHL this week: Top spot still up for grabs as teams prepare for playoffs

Three teams are in contention for the top spot in the PWHL, which will give them the chance to pick their first-round playoff opponent between the third- and fourth-seeded teams.

Toronto 1st to clinch a playoff position, but Montreal and Minnesota aren't far behind

A group of hockey players in white and blue jerseys celebrate on the ice.
PWHL Toronto defeated Montreal 3-2 in overtime on Saturday at the Bell Centre, thanks to a goal from Sarah Nurse. (PWHL)

A little more than two weeks into the season, PWHL Toronto sat last in the league.

The team lost four of its first five games, including an emotional inaugural game on home ice. The team that should have had the most familiarity early on looked disjointed.

Three months later, Toronto became the first team in the PWHL to clinch a playoff spot, thanks in part to an 11-game win streak built on solid defence and a turnaround in net from starter Kristen Campbell, who hadn't played much coming into this season.

"Looking back on it now, the start helped us get where we are now," Campbell said after backstopping her team to a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday in Montreal, in front of more than 21,000 fans at the Bell Centre. "The adversity was good for us."

Toronto sits in first place with three games to go before playoffs begin, but the picture at the top of the standings is still very much in flux. Montreal and Minnesota sit only three points back each, and as Toronto learned while climbing back up the standings, a regulation win can change a lot. Each team has three regular season games left to play.

At stake for the team that finishes first is the chance to pick their first-round playoff opponent between the third- and fourth-seeded teams.

WATCH l Hockey North — PWHL playoff race heats up:

PWHL playoff race heats up: Toronto clinches, Ottawa in battle for final spot

2 months ago
Duration 8:42
Join Saroya Tinker and Hailey Salvian as they break down the final weeks of the PWHL season.

Toronto completed a season sweep of Montreal on Saturday. But don't think that means Toronto is eager to sign up for playoff hockey against Montreal and big-game players like Marie-Philip Poulin and Ann-Renée Desbiens.

"If I had to answer right now, no, based on the performance they gave tonight," Toronto head coach Troy Ryan said on Saturday about whether the team would choose to play Montreal. "But we'll discuss it as a group."

Positives for Montreal in OT loss

It felt like the roof of the Bell Centre might come off when Poulin's name and number were announced on Saturday.

Every time Montreal touched the puck, every time Poulin looked poised to do something magic, the crowd roared.

"It's hard to find the words," Montreal's captain said after the game. "I've been talking about it's incredible, it's surreal. But it really is. It's been years in the making. We've been striving, we've been wanting to be in that moment, and we're here."

The attendance at Saturday's game set a record as the most-attended women's hockey game, eclipsing the crowd of 19,285 that watched the same two teams battle in February at Scotiabank Arena.

Fans at the Bell Centre in Montreal cheer as the attendance number is displayed on the big screen during a PWHL game on April 20, 2024.
A crowd of 21,105 people watched Toronto defeat Montreal at the Bell Centre. Montreal will have another opportunity to clinch a playoff spot on Wednesday at home against New York. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Toronto won in overtime thanks to a goal from Sarah Nurse, but Montreal's coaching staff saw a lot of positives in the loss.

For one, Montreal's power play has been more dangerous than ever, starting with the puck movement that flows from power-play quarterback Erin Ambrose. The defender was named the PWHL's first star of the week after posting five points in the team's last two games, all with a player advantage.

That came after she assisted on the golden goal for Canada at the world championship, and after spending some time on Canada's second power-play unit instead of the first.

"Being a big part of that game-winning goal at worlds was a boost, and I think she's got a little chip on her shoulder and I like that," Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie said on Tuesday. "I think it's important to take the fuel that you need and implement it into your game, and I think that's what she's doing right now."

It looks like the team is playing its best hockey at the perfect time, despite missing several players to injury.

Next up on Wednesday is a motivated New York team that will be fighting to stay alive in the playoff hunt. The team needs to beat Montreal in regulation and see Boston defeat Ottawa to avoid elimination.

On the other side, Montreal can clinch a playoff spot with a regulation win over New York, among other scenarios.

"If you can play a complete 60-minute game where, statistically speaking, we should have beaten Toronto in regulation, then I think that game plan is going to work against everybody," Cheverie said.

Minnesota powered by captain's comeback

Kendall Coyne Schofield knew she had to give herself some grace when she skated on to the Tsongas Center ice in Boston for PWHL Minnesota's first game on Jan. 3.

It had been only six months since the Minnesota captain had given birth to her son, Drew, and more than a year since she'd played an elite-level hockey game.

Since making that comeback, Coyne Schofield has led her Minnesota team to one of the most consistent performances in the league this season. The team is tied with Montreal for second in the standings, and despite two straight losses, has a chance to clinch a playoff spot on Wednesday if Boston loses to Ottawa in regulation.

"Each month I've made progress and feel a little bit more like myself, but a better version of myself knowing that I'm a mom and that's my priority," Coyne Schofield told CBC Sports. "That will always come before anything else in my life."

Hockey players battle for the puck along the boards.
PWHL Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield returned to professional hockey six months after giving birth, and has led her team to a fight for the top spot in the league all season long. (PWHL)

Early in her return, someone told Minnesota head coach Ken Klee how impressed they were with Coyne Schofield's play.

"And I said, 'You guys just wait, she's only going to get better,'" Klee remembered.

Four months after her first game, Klee thinks Coyne Schofield looks more dynamic on the ice than ever, whether it's driving to the net with her trademark speed or creating turnovers.

Only Grace Zumwinkle has scored more points than Coyne Schofield's 15 on Minnesota this season.

"Obviously Kendall is a tremendous person and ambassador for our sport. We always knew that," Minnesota GM Natalie Darwitz said.

"I think the question mark coming in from most people was would she be able to get back to playing form, and I think she has done a great job silencing any critics that are out there."

Consistency key for Minnesota

The consistency this season has started in net with Maddie Rooney and Nicole Hensley, who have been the best tandem in the league, despite tough games over the last week.

On defence, the team has been led by shutdown defender Lee Stecklein, who's been bolstered by the addition of Sophie Jaques in February. Not only has Jaques come as advertised offensively, with a booming shot and great instincts on when to jump into the play, Klee has been impressed by the rookie's physicality.

"She's a strong player, very physical, which in this league, you can see a lot of the stronger players, bigger players, are having a lot of success," Klee said.

Up front, in addition to Coyne Schofield, Zumwinkle and Taylor Heise have been game changers. It was Zumwinkle's goal on the power play that started a comeback for Minnesota against Montreal on Thursday, though the team ultimately lost 4-3 thanks to a Montreal power play that was firing on all cylinders.

A hockey player in a purple jersey, with number 13 on it, looks across the ice as she skates.
In her first professional season, Grace Zumwinkle leads Minnesota in scoring with 17 points in 21 games. (Kelly Hagenson/PWHL)

And then there's Kelly Pannek, who Darwitz describes as an "unsung hero" on Minnesota. Pannek sits third in the league in faceoffs won, behind only New York's Alex Carpenter and Montreal's Poulin.

The biggest challenge of all in the regular season might be found in this last stretch of the regular season, where Minnesota is playing all but one of its games on the road. 

But the team is looking at that as a positive, giving them more time to gel heading into the playoffs.

"We enjoy going to the rink with each other," Coyne Schofield said. "We enjoy working with each other, day in and day out. I think we've gotten better, we've grown with each other over the last handful of months."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. You can reach her at karissa.donkin@cbc.ca.

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