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PWHL Minnesota completes reverse sweep, ends Toronto's season


Minnesota defeated Toronto 4-1 in game five of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) semi-finals on Friday night, completing a reverse sweep of the number one seed to earn themselves a spot in the PWHL Finals against Boston.

Toronto won the first two games of the series on home ice to take a 2-0 series lead but were unable to score a goal in two games in Minnesota, bringing the series back to Toronto at a deadlock. With the win on Friday, Minnesota carries three straight wins into the final against third-seed Boston, who swept Montreal in their semi-final.

Toronto head coach Troy Ryan said after the game he thought Toronto took advantage of Minnesota not being in the best place entering the series due to a five-game losing streak to end the regular season, but after that, each game could have gone either way.

“I thought we took a step in the right direction starting the series. They made a couple of adjustments [and] started to get a little bit of confidence and I think they just rode with that confidence,” said Ryan.

He added there were a lot of close calls for his team in the final game.

“We just didn't find a way to get it done when we needed to,” he said.

Minnesota head coach Ken Klee shared that sentiment, as he felt his team built out of the second game in Toronto and then took things one game at a time.

“I thought game two was a big change for us... I think it started to grow there,” he said. “[The players] did an unbelievable job of staying with it.” 

The difference in the game was made with first-overall 2023 PWHL Draft pick Taylor Heise’s power play goal at 8:30 of the third period, her first point in the series and Minnesota’s second power play goal of the night. Minnesota would add two goals on the empty net, including another from Heise, to secure the victory.

Ryan did not think effort was the problem at all, as he said he told the team after the game they all put everything they had on the ice in that game.

“They laid it on the line [and] everybody competed and battled and gave us a chance to win that hockey game,” he said.

Captain Blayre Turnbull said Toronto has a lot to be proud of despite the emotional loss.

“The way that we battled and competed tonight, I really thought that we could pull out a win,” she said. “It's tough to feel that way and come up short.”

The first period provided a stark contradiction to the previous two games, as both teams came out with a lot of speed, intensity and the intention to throw lots of pucks at the net. The frame ended with the shots at 13-7 for Toronto, who eventually established a cycle but were kept mostly to the outside by Minnesota. 

Minnesota opened the scoring with the first power play goal of the series seven and a half minutes into the second period, with Denisa Křížová firing home a rebound.

Klee said he knew his team could make things happen with the player advantage.

“It's easy to say ‘Oh your power play's not working, your power play's not working.’ I'm like, it's gonna work. Just keep doing the right things, get our looks, and we'll get through,” he said.

Minnesota never established momentum, however, as Toronto came storming back with a goal of their own just 38 seconds later. Rebecca Leslie earned her first point of the series as she redirected a cross-crease pass from Victoria Bach past Minnesota goaltender Maddie Rooney.

Toronto amped up the pressure from there and looked poised to break through for the rest of the period, though goaltender Kristen Campbell had to make a few huge saves on another Minnesota power play a few minutes after Leslie’s goal.

Rooney was a huge factor in the game, as she had been in back-to-back shutouts in games three and four. Heise and fellow Minnesota forward Grace Zumwinkle said the team tips their hats to Rooney, as well as fellow netminder Nicole Hensley, every game and period.

“[Rooney]'s definitely been our backbone for the team. And I think she's bailed us out when we needed it,” Zumwinkle said. “

After a back-and-forth start to the third period, Minnesota turned the tide with a power play seven minutes into the frame. With Jocelyn Larocque—a top-pair defender and key penalty killer for Toronto—in the penalty box for the second time in the game, Heise lasered a wrist shot from the point into the top corner past Campbell’s glove.

While Fast and Ryan said it is tough to have key players—like Larocque and Sarah Nurse—in the penalty box, they did not think the penalty kill that had been so good for them all season broke down in this game. To Ryan, it just got beat.

“Honestly, on the second goal. I mean, that’s as nice of a power play shot as you'll get,” he said, noting Heise’s shot perfectly found the top corner. “A lot of times it's not that a penalty kill is broken down, it's often you see an offensive team make a good play to make a power play successful.”

Toronto’s offence was muted in the final 20 minutes, as they managed just four shots in the third period compared to 13 and 11 in the first two periods respectively.

Despite persistent, passionate pleas from the Toronto faithful, the team was unable to turn opportunities with the extra skater into goals. Minnesota put the game away with an empty net goal by Sophia Kunin, then Heise scored another with 14 seconds left to seal the deal.

The crowd gave Toronto a standing ovation in the final moments, before replicating that support after the buzzer and during the handshake. Turnbull said it was disappointing in that moment to feel like the game was probably done but there is also a sense of gratitude for the fans.

“The support that we got here in Toronto, I think it was unbelievable all season. Regardless of what rink we played in, our fans showed up and cheered us on,” she said. “To hear them support us throughout the duration of that game, especially at the end when it wasn't looking good, that meant a lot to us.”

Toronto selected Minnesota as their opponent for the round as part of a unique PWHL rule favouring the top team in the regular season. Heise said Minnesota came in with a chip on their shoulder and took the chance to prove themselves, even in front of passionate opposing fans.

“I think the silence means more than an applause. So I think for us, [when] we were able to silence the crowd here, we were able to prove that we're here for a reason,” she said.

Toronto now heads into the offseason with a lot to think about, including how their offence dried up after the loss of Natalie Spooner to a knee injury in game three. They scored just one goal combined in their three straight losses.

“Obviously, losing someone who's been a top scorer in the league and a top scorer in our team is it is a difficult thing for any team to handle,” Ryan said post-game. “I still don't think that's the reason we lost. We had a great group of players who all stepped up when they needed to step up. We’ve just got to find a way to score in those big moments.”

To Ryan, Turnbull and Fast, there is a lot to look fondly upon and look forward to. Ryan said even after the loss, there is lots to be proud of.

“I think in reflection, we're gonna look back on this year and be very proud of what this group in Toronto accomplished, but even probably more proud with the PWHL has accomplished,” he said.

Turnbull said Toronto has a lot to be proud of in how their season progressed from a slow start in January, right through to their effort in game five.

“I know that in our dressing room, we're really proud of the legacy that we started for the PWHL Toronto team,” the captain said.

As for Minnesota, they head to Boston to play in game one of the first-ever PWHL Finals on Sunday. With momentum in their favour and no break to disrupt it—Boston has not played since Tuesday—, Minnesota is feeling confident.

“I think we're gonna relish in the fact that we came out and we kicked some ass today and did a really good job in this series,” Heise said. “I think we have more potential than we can even imagine right now.”


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