By: Mitchell Fox
PWHL Toronto walked away with their first home victory against PWHL New York on Friday night, finishing off a busy first segment of the season with a 2-0 shutout.
Toronto came out with a lot of energy in the first period but were unable to find the back of the net or create any separation.
That quiet start gave way to an eventful second period for Toronto. They outshot New York 14-4 and took the lead with Natalie Spooner’s fourth goal of the season.
In the third period, though New York tried to pour it on in a comeback effort, Toronto managed to lock down the ice and allow Kristen Campbell to do her thing comfortably in goal. Spooner’s second goal iced the game.
Here are five takeaways from a tight-checking game at Mattamy Athletic Centre.
Low-event game favours relentless Toronto squad
While Toronto’s defensive depth has at times been called into question, they showed on Friday they can win tight, low-scoring games. New York were able to create a few dangerous chances for Kristen Campbell to stop but for the most part, Toronto were able to lock down their own zone.
One of the biggest differences in the game came away from their own zone. Toronto’s forecheck was a force to be reckoned with and New York struggled to get going in transition, finding their breakout lanes cut off by both pinching defenders and forwards coming back with tenacity.
“I think one of the better parts of tonight's game was just our numbers in certain areas,” Ryan said, noting the neutral zone as one key area. “That first goal was all just good defensive positioning.”
Ryan liked his team’s smart teamwork play to cause turnovers, rather than “solo missions.” The defence were patient and so were the forwards, though they also jumped at chances to catch New York off guard.
“I thought our [defence] did a good job. Instead of diving down and crashing down and trying to force turnovers, they actually accepted the rush a little bit more, got their feet under them and then engaged in a battle,” Ryan said.
“It's nice to see [the team] starting to get that you can be really aggressive, you can be physical, but there are times that you just need good positioning,” he added.
Toronto has already created a reputation as a tight-checking team, as was seen again on Friday. Ryan said they need to make sure their hits are clean, but such a physical style is how his team wants to play.
“I think that's the type of game that the fans want to see. I know our players want to play that way,” he said.
New York head coach Howie Draper said he felt his team needed to put more pride in what they were doing and let Toronto win a lot of puck races and battles.
“I just felt that we needed to dig a little bit deeper,” he said. “There's just a lot of things that it comes down to focus and determination and heart.”
He said they did play better in the third period, but they need to play like that more consistently.
Spooner showcases her importance to Toronto offence
Natalie Spooner’s three goals heading into Friday were already a sign of the skill she has shown throughout her career. Her two goals in the game cemented how big of a role she can play in Toronto’s successes.
Spooner scored two very different goals, each with their own swagger. The first came after she burst out of the neutral zone, passed two defenders and cut to the net to deposit a backhand through Corinne Schroeder’s five-hole.
“I don't know if I was even thinking. I just went,” Spooner said with a laugh. “Coach always talks about me driving pucks to the net […] I just kind of dropped my shoulder under and then I knew I had to move the goalie in some sense. So I saw the five-hole open and was able to tuck it in.”
Her second goal came just after a Toronto powerplay ended. With the puck just behind the goalpost, she managed to tuck the puck over Schroeder’s right shoulder. It was a nifty goal, representative of what Spooner can do as a sometimes forgotten scorer.
Ryan said he keeps talking about other players on the team but Spooner “always finds a way” by being unafraid to go to the net and play in dirty areas.
“From my time with Hockey Canada with her, she just finds ways to score big goals,” Ryan said. “Generally good things happen when you're big, strong and athletic and don't mind taking pucks to the net.”
Draper said Spooner is “an outstanding player” who shows why she plays for Canada at the international level.
“She's a big power forward [who] has the determination to hurt teams, and she doesn't stop,” he said.
“That's a hard player to play against.”
Goaltending shines in tight-checking battle
Toronto certainly had to put in work to get a goal passed Corinne Schroeder.
It took over 20 shots to beat Schroeder and the goal Toronto did get came on one of the game’s few breakaways. The Elm Creek, Man., product made a few highlight-reel saves but was mostly structured, tracking pucks with relative ease and directing rebounds into corners.
Still, with enough time and shots and Spooner’s efforts, Toronto found a way to beat her.
Draper said Schroeder’s game is “always great” but pucks were bound to get by her at some point when she was facing so many shots.
“She did what she needed to do. She made some great saves for us to give us a chance to win,” he said.
On the other end of the ice, Toronto’s Kristen Campbell came away with a win. Not only that, but she claimed her first shutout of her PWHL career, stopping all 19 shots she faced, including nine in the third period.
A shutout was a clear sign of improvement in Toronto’s overall game and in what Campbell can do for them at her best. She said post-game the shutout was “just a bonus.”
“I think it's a testament [to] how well our team played tonight, [and] how great my defence was in front of me,” she said. ‘It was just a really great team win.”
A helpful part in the game was Toronto’s defence shutting down the New York offence with patient defending on the boards and timely shot blocks. Campbell said it felt as though her team had a different connection in the defensive zone than in past games.
“It was a really good feeling. I knew that they had my back in front of me and I would have their back as well,” she said.
Ryan said he thought Campbell was more relaxed than she was earlier in the season and credited his team for helping make the night easier on her.
“We were pleased with Campbell, we were pleased with the group as well,” Ryan said. “Definitely happy for her.”
Toronto gifts Troy Ryan with his first home win
Friday was Toronto head coach Troy Ryan’s birthday and his team certainly turned out a celebration-worthy performance.
Campbell said it was nice to hear the fans cheering after the game.
“We owe them that one after a few losses here at home,” she said. “It was pretty special to finally get the win here.”
She said her team is on an upward trajectory as the season has progressed and they are going to continue working to build momentum and get better and better.
“The most exciting thing is I feel like we still haven't hit our peak,” Campbell said. “I think as a group, we can take that as not only a win on the scoresheet, but a win in how we want to show up every night and the style of hockey we want to play.”
Ryan said he and the whole group were happy after the milestone win.
“[What] I like about it is how we did it,” he said. “For games in the past, when things get tight at the end, we tend to get a little bit passive, kind of feeling the pressure of the situation. I thought our group did a pretty good job of keeping up [with] them.”
The win moves Toronto up to a tie with New York, as well as Ottawa and Boston, at eight points. They have played more games than those teams but it shows the season is far from out of reach. They could use the upcoming break to regroup and build momentum.
“I think we know it was a big game and we needed to turn the tide,” Spooner said.
Sellout crowd backs Toronto to first home win
The win on Friday marked an important milestone for Toronto, their first win on home ice.
Home ice was certainly a way to describe it. The crowd at Mattamy Athletic Centre was electric, cheering every time a Toronto player carried the puck across the offensive zone blue line. Natalie Spooner’s goals were met with eruptions and Kristen Campbell’s saves were certainly noted.
Spooner told media after the game she knew there were fans at their game in Ottawa who travelled there because they could not get tickets in Toronto.
“I have to say we probably have the best fans so far,” she said. “The crowds have been awesome. I think we're pretty lucky.”
Toronto players are not the only ones able to take advantage of seeing a sell-out crowd for a professional women’s hockey game. Schroeder said it was exciting to know there were little girls with “future PWHL goaltender” signs in the crowd.
“I'm so glad that they have this opportunity to look forward to,” she said. “None of us would have had that growing up. The Olympics was our kind of dream goal and still is for many.”
PWHL Toronto returns to action next Saturday, Feb. 3, against PWHL Minnesota. Stay tuned for more PWHL coverage from Intermission Sports.