PWHL·Preview

PWHL playoffs: Toronto's inability to score leads to Minnesota-Boston final

Over three playoff games against Minnesota, Toronto couldn't solve goaltender Maddie Rooney when it mattered most.

CBC Sports previews both teams in inaugural PWHL championship series

A hockey team celebrates on the ice.
PWHL Minnesota defeated Toronto 4-1 to take a decisive Game 5 in the semifinal series. They will play Boston in the finals, which begin on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. (Alex D’Addese/PWHL)

With 14 seconds left and Minnesota leading 4-1 on Friday night, it was starting to sink in for Blayre Turnbull that her team wasn't going to be able to come back.

Toronto went into the playoffs with a ton of momentum after an 11-game win streak propelled the team to the top of the standings.

Finishing first meant Toronto had the power to select its opponent, and they chose Minnesota, the fourth-seeded team that lost five games in a row leading into the playoffs.

Things looked good for Toronto at the start of the series, too, after starter Kristen Campbell posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 1 and 2.

But Toronto dropped three games in a row to Minnesota, including the deciding Game 5 on Friday. 

WATCH | Minnesota eliminates Toronto, advances to Walter Cup final:

Minnesota beats Toronto in Game 5, advances to inaugural PWHL championship

1 month ago
Duration 1:41
Minnesota defeats Toronto 4-1 to win their best-of-five semifinal playoff series 3-2. Minnesota will face Boston in the PWHL's inaugural Walter Cup final.

"The loss definitely stings," Turnbull said, pausing for a few seconds before she continued. "I think the way that we battled and competed tonight, I really thought that we could pull out a win. It's tough to feel that way and come up short."

Over three games, Toronto scored only one goal. The team certainly missed regular-season scoring leader Natalie Spooner, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the third period of Game 3. But Toronto has other offensive threats, and they couldn't solve Minnesota goaltender Maddie Rooney when it mattered most.

Both goals against Toronto on Friday came on the penalty kill, an area where Toronto excelled during the regular season to the tune of nearly 92 per cent efficiency.

"That's as nice of a power-play shot as you'll get," Toronto head coach Troy Ryan said about Minnesota forward Taylor Heise's game-winning goal.

"A lot of times it's not that a penalty kill has broken down. It's often you see an offensive team make a good play to make a power play successful. I thought they had a great net front on Heise's shot, and she found the right corner of the net to put it in."

Minnesota moves on to face Boston in an all-American Walter Cup best-of-five championship series. Game 1 is set for Sunday at 5 p.m. ET at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass.

Here's a look at the two teams battling to become the first Walter Cup champions. 

Minnesota's 'backbone' in net

Rooney was only 20 years old when she backstopped the American women's national team to an Olympic gold medal through a shootout in 2018.

Despite her resumé, Rooney didn't hear her name called at the PWHL's inaugural draft in September, nor was she listed as one of the players invited to USA Hockey's evaluation camp ahead of this past spring's world championship.

Two players jostle for position in front of a goaltender wearing a white Minnesota jersey.
Minnesota goaltender Maddie Rooney's teammates say her calmness has helped her navigate the ebbs and flows of her career over the last few years, and her performance in the PWHL playoffs. (Alex D’Addese/PWHL)

But Rooney's stellar play is a big reason why PWHL Minnesota was able to limit Toronto offensively over the last three games. Teammate Grace Zumwinkle described her as the team's "backbone."

"She's been absolutely what we've needed back there," Minnesota defender Lee Stecklein said. "When we've given up chances, we know she's there to keep us in it, and it's been astounding to see how she's been playing and just the confidence she has."

Rooney, who was signed by Minnesota as a free agent, paired with Nicole Hensley over the season to split starts.

After Hensley allowed four goals in the first game, Minnesota head coach Ken Klee turned to Rooney. She's stopped 92 of the 94 shots she's faced since then.

Minnesota's Kelly Pannek pointed to Rooney's calmness as an attribute that's helped her navigate the ebbs and flows of her career over the last seven years.

"For her to persevere through all of that and be the goalie that we've all seen her be, it's a really exciting time for her," Pannek said.

Solid defending by Minnesota, led by a blue line that includes veteran Stecklein and rookie Sophie Jaques, has helped.

Minnesota goes into the final series having had goals from up and down its lineup. Depth defender Maggie Flaherty scored the game winner in Game 3, followed by a double-overtime winner from third-liner Claire Butorac in Game 4. 

Hockey players celebrate together after a goal
Minnesota's Taylor Heise (27) celebrates her goal against Toronto goaltender Kristen Campbell in the third period of Minnesota's Game 5 win. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In Game 5, it was first-overall draft pick Heise who picked a corner from range on the power play to put the team up 2-1. Heise and Sophia Kunin added empty-netters.

"It takes every single person on this team to win a game and especially to win a series, and I think we did that in the five games that we had," captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said.

Minnesota heads into the final looking like a confident team. But one thing will be different. One of the team's top forwards, Abby Boreen will be unable to play. She was signed from the reserve list ahead of the semifinals, but reserve players can only play one playoff series.

A rested Boston

Minnesota will face a Boston team that's found its groove at the right time of the season, and that's had a few days off to rest from three overtime wins over Montreal. Boston will also have the benefit of home ice advantage.

While Minnesota has relied on Rooney to be solid over the last four games, no player has been more important all season long for Boston than its starter, Aerin Frankel.

Boston has only played three playoff games, but every single game was close. Montreal sent 141 shots at Frankel, who saved all but four of them.

Hockey player shoots puck at opposing goalie
Montreal's Laura Stacey (7) tries a wrap-around attempt on Boston goaltender Aerin Frankel during third-period PWHL hockey action in Montreal in March. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"She's been lights out all year, and I think that's just a testament to who she is, how competitive she is," Boston defender Megan Keller said.

If Frankel has been Boston's most valuable player, Keller has arguably been the team's second most valuable. A steady presence on the back end, Keller put up two points over three games against Montreal.

A game-changing trade

When Boston GM Danielle Marmer sent Jaques to Minnesota in February in exchange for forward Susanna Tapani and depth defender Abby Cook, Marmer knew she was giving up a "special player."

But Marmer saw her team rarely scoring the first goal and often losing games by one goal. She saw Tapani as a top centre who could help the team be one goal better. Marmer wants to win now and felt like she had to make a move to add more offence.

A hockey player wearing a green Boston jersey looks on during a game.
PWHL Boston's Susanna Tapani scored overtime goals in Games 1 and 3 against Montreal in the playoffs. She was acquired by Boston in a trade in February. (Adam Richins/PWHL)

It paid off. Tapani scored the overtime winner in both Games 1 and 3.

"Susanna is just such a complete hockey player, 200 foot," head coach Courtney Kessel said. "We can count on her and rely on her whether it's [penalty kill], power play."

Marmer also acquired Lexie Adzija from Ottawa on trade deadline day. Adzija, who does her best work around the net, deflected Sophie Shirley's shot past Montreal's Ann-Renée Desbiens to force overtime in Game 1.

Amanda Pelkey, an undrafted player who signed with Boston as a free agent, also had two goals in the series against Montreal. Continuing to find goals from all parts of the lineup will be crucial for Boston.

A group of hockey players wearing green Boston jerseys celebrate on the ice.
PWHL Boston celebrates winning Game 3 of the Walter Cup semifinals against Montreal at home in Lowell, Mass. (Adam Richins/PWHL)

One advantage is having Hilary Knight on the ice. Though she didn't have a point against Montreal, Knight has a long resumé that shows she can score when the stakes are highest.

"When the big games come, Hilary Knight is always going to be an X-factor," Keller said.

"I've been a part of a few where she's had a hat trick or game-winning goals. It's an honour to have her on her team, and I know that makes the rest of this group so confident to have her as our leader and know that she's going to step up in these big games."

PWHL Walter Cup final series schedule:

Game 1: Sunday, 5 p.m. ET (Tsongas Center)
Game 2: Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET (Tsongas Center)
Game 3: Friday, 7 p.m. ET (Xcel Energy Center)
Game 4: May 26, 6 p.m. ET (Xcel Energy Center) *if necessary
Game 5: May 29, 7 p.m. ET (Tsongas Center) *if necessary

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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