PWHL season recap — Minnesota is unlikely champion

The IX: Hockey Friday with The Ice Garden, May 31, 2024

We are at the end of the first-ever season of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), and it has obviously been one for the history books. By now, PWHL Minnesota has celebrated its first Walter Cup, and an exciting draft and sophomore season lie ahead. But before we switch gears to Year 2, let’s talk about some of the incredible moments we’ve witnessed in the league’s inaugural year, ones that for better or for worse have shaped the game in a new way. I’m sure y’all can think of way more than five amazing moments, but hey, it’s in keeping with the theme, so let me know some of your favorites I may have missed. 

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A series of firsts

Of course with a new league comes new milestones. First ever draft pick? Taylor Heise for PWHL Minnesota. First goal? Ella Shelton, January 1 for New York against Toronto. First shutout? Corinne Schroeder in NY’s 4-0 win that same game. First hat trick? Grace Zumwinkle for Minnesota against Montreal. 

These are way more than just trivia questions — they’re ingrained in my head as much as I’m sure they are yours, with Shelton’s exuberant celly, Schroeder’s humility post-game and the electricity of the crowd witnessing young stars in the making with Heise and Zumwinkle. It’s exciting to see paths being continued and new ones being forged in North American professional women’s hockey as it stands currently. 


New rule changes are always a gamble. Either fans love it or they don’t; either it could speed up the game, or it could spell trouble. We saw that a little bit with the introduction of hitting in the PWHL, a move preceded by Sweden’s SDHL and followed by… well, a considerable amount of confusion. I for one hope each team can make sure its players know how to safely and cleanly throw a hit when the time is right, but that remains to be seen. Same goes for the playoffs, where the top seed chooses their opponent (and first seed Toronto made the fateful decision to pick then-fourth seed Minnesota… more on that later.)

One rule change I do unequivocally love is the introduction of the jailbreak rule. This rule allows for a team to bring their penalized player out of the penalty box if they score a shorthanded goal. Toronto’s Emma Maltais fittingly scored the first-ever jailbreak goal Jan. 5 against New York, and it has definitely upped the stakes a bit. 

As offense (hopefully) increases and teams develop their specialty units over multiple seasons, I cannot wait to see how special teams improve, because honestly I think they can only improve. I mean, as a power play unit, think of how frustrating it would be to give up that chance, and as a penalty kill, think of how awesome it would be to see that level of pressure on an opposing power play. It could lead to some real creativity on either end of the ice. 

The rise of Natalie Spooner

Back in January, Toronto looked down and out before the season ever really got underway. They were struggling offensively and putting a heavy workload on Team Canada youngster Kristen Campbell in net. It’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason for a team’s turnaround particularly in a sport like hockey, but a huge part of it? The offensive dominance of forward Natalie Spooner

Spooner’s output (20 goals, 27 points in 24 games) has been second to none over the course of the regular season and had she not gone down in the Walter Cup semis with a knee injury, she likely would have dominated there too. No one was able to touch her in the goal scoring category, and she was a tremendous force on the power play as well (7 PPG). In an inaugural season where games were close and goals incredibly difficult to come by, that kind of offense is downright inspiring.

With a stat sheet like this, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Spooner getting the MVP trophy, and I can’t think of any other players more deserving. She certainly was able to galvanize the Toronto offense in a way no one else could, and nowhere was that more evident than during the postseason, where Toronto managed just one goal in the two games they played without her in the lineup. 

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We have a winner!… Oh, wait

So many hearts were broken in St. Paul once it was ruled that the overtime goal Minnesota defender Sophie Jaques scored was in fact not a goal. 

It was ruled instead that Taylor Heise committed goaltender interference on Boston netminder Aerin Frankel with her rush to the net late in the second overtime period, meaning an entire crowd at Xcel Energy Center and the players themselves had to regroup from an emotional high. Just moments later, Alina Müller would extend Boston’s (and by proxy, Minnesota’s) season by one more game, with a gorgeous shot high on Nicole Hensley to keep the championship hopes alive for the girls in green. 

Much can be said about the consistency of PWHL officiating this first season, but I have to hand it to the refs in this case — to call back a season-making (and ending) goal like that is obviously the right call when needed, but also a gutsy move when the home team is celebrating winning the Walter Cup a whole game too soon. (Again, more on that in a moment.) As for Jaques, the poetic justice of scoring the championship winner against the team that traded her was unfortunately made null and void… but she would get her revenge soon enough. 

The winner is… Minnesota? An unexpected champion

And finally, we are here. Was this the final anyone had in mind? Absolutely not. But a stunning run by Boston against second-place Montreal preceded a huge stroke of luck for Minnesota against top-seeded Toronto, making the championship something completely out of left field, if you’ll pardon the baseball pun. 

I have to give it to these two teams — they fought hard. Boston got hot at just the perfect time to make this kind of a run, and largely fought to the end on the back of a stellar Aerin Frankel in net. While they proved they had Montreal’s number like no other team had all season, they ran out of gas at the end — and even Frankel can’t be a difference maker if the offense just isn’t there.

As for Minnesota, they backed into the playoffs and might not even have made it past the semis if not for the injury to Spooner and subsequent deflation of PWHL Toronto. Once they got their chance, they seized it, and they mostly kept seizing it through Game 5, where they punished Boston on their own ice and shut them out 3-0. Sophie Jaques completed her revenge tour, Nicole Hensley redeemed herself after a bit of a shaky start, and Kendall Coyne Schofield got to remind everyone she’s a mom with baby Drew sitting (extremely unhappily at first, might I add) in the Cup itself. Hockey, man. This sport’s just grand. 

Can’t-miss women’s hockey links

Our pal Lydia Murray over at The Ice Garden has killed PWHL Boston coverage all year, and the postseason has been no exception. Check out her recap of the last game of the Finals here.

Karissa Donkin and Rob Pizzo also have an initial breakdown of how Game 5 played out, over on CBC Sports’ YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to hear me stumble over my words and look a hot mess, check out Heart of a Fan’s most recent episode where Matt Barry and I chat about the fans’ roles and reactions to Year 1.

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In the midst of the Finals hubbub, the PWHL dropped its list of 172 players eligible for the upcoming 2024 Draft, to be held in Minnesota June 10. A couple of interesting notes: first, that Abby Boreen will have her name on the Cup this season with Minny, but has declared for this draft due to her being a full-time student and draft ineligible last season. Next, there are a LOT of blasts from the past in the goalie category, not least of which are Noora Raty (!) and Mariah Fujimagari (fresh off her stint in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings, then the Norfolk Admirals). Finally, as reported, Amanda Kessel is in fact on this list, right alongside young guns like Sarah Fillier, Izzy Daniel and Danielle Serdachny. 

On the NCAA front, Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall signed a contract extension to stay in Columbus for the next five seasons, through 2028-29. The way Muzerall has been able to build a winning culture in the Buckeyes program is unreal, and it’s paid dividends with two national championships in the past three seasons (including this most recent against Wisconsin). This news was paired with the announcement that Buckeyes associate coach Peter Elander is retiring from coaching college hockey, leaving a spot on the bench for Muzerall to now fill. 

Finally, Melissa Burgess has an interesting take on about where pro women’s hockey stands in the wake of the PWHL’s first season. It’s hard to believe we’re coming up on one year since the acquisition that birthed this fledgling league, but here we are, and it’ll be quite a road to Year 2, I’m sure.

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Written by The Ice Garden