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Takeaways: PWHL Toronto clinches top spot with skill-filled win over Minnesota

A PWHL Toronto player with pride tape on the shaft of their stick tries to shoot a puck amidst a scramble in from of PWHL Minnesota's goaltender
(BARRY MCCLUSKEY/THE EYEOPENER)

With a 4-1 win over PWHL Minnesota in their second last game of the regular season on Wednesday night, PWHL Toronto clinched the top spot in the league. 


The milestone means Toronto will get to choose between the third and fourth seeds at the end of the regular season as their semi-final opponent. Though they still have to wait to find out who those options will be, the team is surging and looking ready for the playoffs.


The game also featured Toronto’s Pride Night, with players sporting rainbow PWHL shirts before the game and Pride Tape on their sticks and fans decked out in all their best Pride attire. 


Here are five takeaways from Toronto’s big win on Pride Night at Mattamy Athletic Centre. 


Toronto ready for playoffs, but have decisions to make

Toronto entered the game tied with PWHL Montreal at the top of the league with 41 points but with a game in hand. They took advantage of that opportunity with a statement third-straight win to guarantee them the top spot in the league and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. 


While the biggest question for Toronto is who they will choose as their first-round opponent if they finish as the top team in the league, the biggest takeaway is that they are finding ways to win that resemble a playoff team. For a team that started the season on a very slow note, they have continued to build their way up to being a near-unstoppable force.


“I am really proud of the group for the way we’ve rallied around and how we've had the mentality of just getting better every single day and not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” Toronto defender Renata Fast said after the game. “We'll have to reset quick and get in playoff mode right away, but I think we're building toward that right now with these last couple of games.”


Toronto head coach Troy Ryan was happy that his team took control of the game early enough to prevent having to “grind out” a win in the final moments. After a tight overtime win over Montreal at Bell Centre on April 20, Toronto took care of business with a 6-2 win over New York on Sunday. Three days later, they got a similar result against a strong Minnesota squad. 


“First place is important. It's great. But it doesn't guarantee success in the playoffs. So we want to set our team up for success,” said Ryan. 


However, he also noted that his team has things to work on, especially on their breakouts and on controlling possession in the offensive zone.


“Just because we come in first place, it doesn't mean we don't have things to clean up,” the Toronto bench boss said.


As for the decision about who to pick as their semi-final opponent, Ryan was glad they could not make that decision yet. He wants to focus on each and every game to build up to the playoffs.


“It's kind of good that we're just not there yet… we don't even know who we would get to choose from,” he said. “It doesn't make sense to waste a lot of time right now and to dive into it, but I'm actually excited about it.”


“It will probably be more of a collaboration and a joint effort than most people would actually think it is,” he added.


Shooting from the point provides a big weapon for Toronto

One of the biggest factors in the game was undoubtedly Toronto’s willingness to fire pucks from the blue line. Though many shots did not make their way to the goal, the threat of Toronto’s point shooting kept Minnesota on their toes and unable to consistently turn things around, which was only helped by Toronto’s relentless backchecking.


The biggest difference-maker was Fast, who routinely walked the blue line and fired shots through traffic at both five-on-five and on the power play. Spooner’s first goal came from a deflection of a Fast shot from the point on the power play in the second period, giving Toronto a 2-1 lead they would never look back from.  


Fast said she and the team are working on a mentality that good things happen when you shoot, something Ryan preaches. 


“I'm not looking to score when I'm up at the point,” Fast said. “I mean, you're looking at Spooner and she's a goalscoring machine. I think if you get the puck near her, there's a good chance it's going in.”


Spooner had a lot of good things to say about not only Fast’s shot but also her ability to move along the blue line and open up shooting lanes for herself and others. 


“I love it when I'm playing in front of the net and [Fast] shoots it,” the PWHL points leader said. “She has such a good shot and she moves so well that she creates so much offence for us when she actually fires the puck.”


Ryan said shooting early and often on power plays helps to break down the opposing penalty kill. However, he also noted that only about half of power play goals tend to come from long-distance shots, as the others come from nice passing plays, like the one Toronto made for Hannah Miller’s goal in the first period. Four Toronto players touched the puck on a quick pinball play to find a wide-open Miller drifting towards the goal. Ryan called it a “beautiful goal.”

 

“I've always told them, I think the shooting mentality will take care of about ten percent of the power play and plays like that should take care of the other 10%,” he said. 


Despite all of the success with shooting, there was risk involved, as Minnesota was able to generate several quality chances off of the rush with blocked shots and quick breakouts. Spooner and Ryan both said they would like their team to play with more offensive zone time.


“We could probably have some more… in-zone possession time. I think if we can do that in the playoffs, we can really wear down other teams,” Spooner said. “I'm sure that's something we'll probably work on or just really have to focus on going into playoffs.”


Special teams powered Toronto through physical game

Both teams came into the game with the idea to play physically and make generating offence a difficult and painful experience for their opponents. The issue in the first two periods, however, was that they took it too far. Each team took three penalties in the first 40 minutes, though only one took advantage. 


Toronto scored two power play goals in a game for only the second time this season—the other came in a 2-1 victory over Boston on March 20—and managed to keep Minnesota’s power play quiet. 


Minnesota head coach Ken Klee said his team had a lot of chances but it ultimately was the type of game where though things were just not working out for his team, special teams did not get the job done.


“It comes down to special teams. We’ve got to figure out a way to get clears and generate on the power plays,” he said.


Toronto, on the other hand, is flourishing on special teams. Fast said the penalty kill is something the squad feels has been successful all year.


“I think when we go down on the [penlaty kill], we all kind of play with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. And we have players that are willing to kind of do the little things right,” she said.


Ryan added an interesting note about his team’s habits for keeping the penalty kill up and running at the top of its game.


“Our penalty kill, it probably would surprise people, we don't work on it. We don't practice it,” he said. “We talk about it a lot because we believe it's a mentality.”


As for the power play, Ryan said a key focus has been challenging the unit to find their own mentality. On Wednesday, that worked out, as they moved the puck efficiently and scored two very different-looking goals with the advantage. For Ryan, keeping that going is about mindset and optimism.


“You need to have confidence in something that's going to fail 80% of the time,” he said. “If you don't use that as a momentum builder, you're never going to have success. So it's how you deal with those failures. Do you learn from it? Do you get better every time you go out? And if you do, you can have a similar mentality to the penalty kill.”


Emma Maltais exemplifies Toronto’s hard-working approach

Toronto kept the energy high through the second and third periods, matching their physical play with urgency in getting the puck out of their zone and not allowing Minnesota to do the same. The possession turned in their favour as the game went on as they locked into a high-pressure forecheck. 


One of Toronto’s biggest engines all year has been Emma Maltais. She plays with physicality and energy as well as a nose for the puck that few players in the game have and it showed from beginning to end.


Along with her two assists on the power play, Maltais scored the empty net goal with just over two minutes left to seal the deal for Toronto. Even that goal was proof of her and Toronto’s relentlessness—with players all over her, she took a tumble as she fired the puck into the empty cage from the blue line.


Ryan said high-energy players tend to get away from their style of play once they begin to put pucks in the back of the net, so he has urged Maltais to maintain the type of game that makes her successful.


“I always try to remind her that I think that's her bread and butter,” he said of Maltais’ aggressive play. “I think when she brings that, she's one of the best players in the world… not many people can match that energy and that attitude.”


Spooner compared Maltais to Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, who is known for getting under the skin of opponents while also providing a lot of skill.


“I feel like that's [Maltais’] game. She's everywhere on the ice. She hunts pucks. She uses her body. She's so strong for how little she is,” said Spooner.


Toronto do not need NHL examples to prepare for playoff hockey, though the Bruins might provide one. Many members of the team have played on international do-or-die stages before and know how to mix energy, skill and passion in big moments. Spooner said the team has worked all year on keeping the energy to a level they can maintain constantly, without “peaks and valleys.”


“I think we have quite a few high-energy people on our team, which is pretty good to elevate the energy,” she said. “If we can kind of ride this wave we're on and feel that energy, I think it'll be good for us going into the playoffs.”


Spooner showed why she owns the leaderboards

Spooner scored her 17th and 18th goals of the season on Wednesday, which not only made her spot at the top of the PWHL goal leaderboard even more of a guarantee but increased her lead in the points column. She is now at 25, with Marie-Phillip Poulin and Alex Carpenter sitting at 22 with a game to go. 


The two-time Olympic gold medallist’s third-period breakaway goal was a clear highlight of the night. She blocked a shot and stole the puck, raced down the ice with defenders grasping at her, triple-deked Maddie Rooney and tucked a backhand into the net, sparking a bigger and bigger eruption from the crowd as she went. Her star power shined through and though her teammates are not surprised by that, they are still left stunned at times.


“It's insane. It's incredible,” Fast said of Spooner’s scoring habits this year. “I think jaws were on the floor on the bench on that goal that she had. But the funny thing is, as soon as she blocked that shot and took three strides and was gone, we're all like, ‘This is going in the net.’” 


While Spooner was predictably not willing to take all the attention and spoke of getting to “play with the best players in the world,” Ryan was not afraid to give her some credit.


“Any team that I've been involved in, she's been number one or number two in scoring. So none of this is surprising to me,” he said. “She has a knack to score like very few people in the world.”



PWHL Toronto next hits the ice on Sunday, May 5, at Mattamy Athletic Centre against PWHL Ottawa. Stay tuned for more coverage from Intermission Sports.


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