The biggest trends in the first week of PWHL action
The IX: Hockey Friday with The Ice Garden, Jan. 5, 2024
Happy New Year! Angelica Rodriguez here with another edition of Hockey Friday. We are in full swing with the PWHL era of women’s hockey, and what a first week it’s been so far. At the time you’re reading this, all six teams have seen action, with Toronto and New York set to rematch Friday evening in Bridgeport, CT. With that, let’s take a look at what we saw from each matchup, in a segment I’d like to call “Trending.” Here, we’ll discuss a positive, a not-so-positive and something to watch as we head into the following week of PWHL play.
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Trending up: Visiting teams playing spoiler
Every single team that has won this week has done so on the road. Monday afternoon saw Ella Shelton, Alex Carpenter and the rest of PWHL New York dominate Toronto at Mattamy Athletic Centre, with a final score of 4-0. Despite some odd moments, the home team never really got going, instead faltering both offensively and defensively as New York scored three in the third period to cement the win. (More on the defense in a bit.)
Tuesday evening, it was Montreal’s turn, battling back from 2-1 down to win over Ottawa in overtime, 3-2, off the stick of Ann-Sophie Bettez. Up until that point, it had been Ottawa playing a tremendous offensive game, utilizing all four lines and peppering Ann-Renee Desbiens with shots. Desbiens (26 saves), however, stood firm, only allowing goals by Hayley Scamurra and Kateřina Mrázová in regulation, while her Ottawa counterpart Emerance Maschmeyer (21 saves) saw a bit less work, but still had a solid showing.
Finally, Minnesota stunned Boston (and perhaps everyone else watching), hanging on to a 3-2 lead until the final buzzer sounded in Lowell. (And I do mean hanging on — Nicole Hensley withstood a barrage of shots late, making her final glove save and basically holding it up in triumph.) Taylor Heise scored Minnesota’s first goal, with Sophia Kunin and Grace Zumwinkle adding to the tally, while Theresa Schafzahl and Megan Keller’s goals got Boston close, but not close enough to force overtime.
Trending down: Special teams work
It’s bound to be an uphill climb when it comes to getting the special teams right — these teams have only been on the ice together for a couple of months at this point. Still, outside of a couple of choice rushes, there’s not a lot happening on the power play for any of these teams currently. Ottawa was just 1-for-6 on the skater advantage Tuesday, while Boston was 1-for-4; but even these two teams didn’t have a whole lot going on for a major portion of their skater advantage time.
Keeping possession and getting quality shots in tight on the goalie seem to be the biggest issues right now, but you can expect each of these coaches to hone in on that and nail down their units as the month goes on. I would also expect each team to focus on the rulebook and tighten up their games as the season goes on, particularly Montreal who had the same issue in eval camp in Utica. With more allowance for body checking along the boards, there will no doubt be a bit of a learning curve — but if these teams want to succeed, they’ll have to accelerate that curve a bit. Once these teams figure out their power play units and systems, they’re going to have enough talent to make you pay if you aren’t careful.
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Keep an eye on: Defensive play and goaltending
This trend started on Monday with Toronto and New York, although it was much better executed by New York in the end. Despite Kristen Campbell’s best effort (24 saves), Toronto’s breakdowns in the neutral zone and down low proved costly particularly in the final period. Meanwhile, New York seemed to have a really good sense of where everyone was on the ice, moved the puck quickly, and kept most of Toronto’s shots to the outside, helping Corinne Schroeder see as much as she could. When they couldn’t, Schroeder was more than capable of taking over, stopping pucks through screens and point-blank on players like Natalie Spooner, Maggie Connors and Emma Maltais to name a few. Schroeder’s heroics (29 saves) earned her the first-ever shutout win in the PWHL and the eighth of her pro career.
Then came an epic showdown Tuesday night between Ottawa and Montreal, where Team Canada tandem Maschmeyer and Desbiens faced off on opposite ends of the ice and put on a show. Desbiens proved to have the tougher overall workload and was spectacular, demonstrating excellent puck tracking and recovery while withstanding an onslaught by Ottawa early on. Maschmeyer, for her part, had a few great saves, but ultimately fell victim to Bettez’s overtime dagger, completing the comeback for Montreal.
Finally, we had Boston against Minnesota, with a Team USA goalie faceoff this time — Aerin Frankel versus Nicole Hensley — and Hensley was the victor, pulling out 33 often acrobatic saves to seal the deal for her club. Frankel faced fewer than half the shots, stopping 13 of 16, and was burned by Taylor Heise and Sophia Kunin in the exact same spot twice (high blocker). Boston looked a little out of sorts and slow to connect, while Minnesota got sticks in the lanes, helped Hensley see as much as possible, and only made a couple of mistakes (including once on a Boston power play where Megan Keller scored through a screen). Still, I expected a lot of gritty defensive play from Minny and they delivered, as did Hensley. With the wealth of back-end talent in the inaugural draft, it’s little surprise these bluelines are delivering on both sides of the puck the way they are.
In case you missed it, Ottawa/Montreal set a new record worldwide for attendance at a professional women’s hockey game, with the official tally at 8,318. That’s unreal, and it is electrifying to think about what this means for the season ahead.
The Ice Garden has been busy, busy, busy during this first week of PWHL action, and we have lots for you in our PWHL tag to feast on, so make sure you get caught up as we hit a bit of off time before weekend puck.
Jason Cooke of The Hockey News has a feature on Boston netminder Emma Soderberg, who went from setting records with the NCAA to a PHF contract, and finally landing with the PWHL for a fresh start.
Another great feature is Kristina Rutherford’s piece at Sportsnet on PWHL New York alternate captain Alex Carpenter, whose path to North American pro hockey has taken a few interesting detours.
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The PWHL released its rulebook ahead of Monday’s puck drop between Toronto and New York, and you can read it in its entirety here. Stay tuned for some more analysis and thoughts on it being put into action, especially that new penalty kill rule. Senior vice president of hockey ops Jayna Hefford made it clear that the league will not be afraid to implement and innovate new rules for the game, so I’m intrigued as to how this will go in the long term.
Check out this interesting look at Northeastern University legend, goaltender Kelly Dyer, from Women’s Hockey Life. Dyer was a huge part of the Huskies’ historic undefeated 1987-88 season and also shined on the international stage in the 1990s. While a good chunk of this focuses on the male counterparts who worked alongside her (not my fave), it’s still interesting to read about a player who broke barriers right with the best of them, but is more of a regionally known name in the women’s hockey lore.
The London Free Press has a touching opinion piece on PWHL New York defender and historic goal scorer Ella Shelton, written by Jane Sims. While I shy away from the schmaltzy “little girls in the stands” narrative I’ve heard way too many times over the past DECADE, it’s still worth a read.
And finally, check out this piece by Hailey Salvian at The Athletic on how the PWHL was built in about six months. Here’s hoping it lasts a lot longer than the average piece of IKEA furniture.
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