PWHL Playoffs: Women’s hockey takes center stage in Toronto while Knight and Poulin renew rivalry

Step aside, Auston Matthews. Women’s hockey is taking center stage in Toronto, where Natalie Spooner, Sarah Nurse & Co. open the PWHL playoffs against Minnesota on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the sport’s most prominent faces — Boston’s Hilary Knight and Montreal’s Marie-Philip Poulin — are adding a new wrinkle to their longstanding U.S.-Canada rivalry in the PWHL’s other semifinal, which opens Thursday.

“Another opportunity to win, right?” Knight said of facing Poulin in a professional setting following a thrilling 6-5 overtime loss in the gold-medal game at the women’s world championships last month.

“You hear about these two names and what an incredible matchup for (fans), and a true Original Six matchup, right?” she added. “If I can just step out of just me as a competitor, I think this is what you want.”

The stars continue aligning for the Professional Women’s Hockey League in its first season, and after finally bringing together the world’s top players under one umbrella. Following a 72-game regular season that featured record-breaking crowds and the playoff picture not settled until the final horn sounded on Sunday, the PWHL enters its postseason with a pair of best-of-five series filled with subplots.

In Stanley Cup-starved Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t reached the final since winning the championship in 1967, the PWHL team is riding high after finishing first in the standings.

“First, I have to say that I’m sad the Leafs are done,” Toronto captain Blayre Turnbull said, referring to the Leafs’ latest first-round exit after losing Game 7 to Boston last weekend. “I was hoping they would go on a bit of a run. But I think for us to be in the spotlight now, it’s something that we’re really excited about.”

By finishing first, Toronto earned the right to select its opponent and went with fourth-place Minnesota over third-place Boston — two teams that finished with identical 12-9-3 records, with Boston having the tiebreaking edge.

Factoring in the decision was Toronto going 3-1 against Minnesota in the regular season, as opposed to 3-2 vs. Boston. Another potential advantage was Minnesota entering the playoffs on a five-game skid, while Boston closed 3-1-1, including a 2-1 win over Toronto.

For Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield, the playoffs represent a fresh start.

“You have to look at the season as a whole. I think it’s really easy to look at the last five games, to look at what didn’t go well for us,” Coyne Schofield said. “We’ve put together some great hockey this year. … And we look forward to going into Toronto with that clean slate.”

There’s championship pressure in Montreal, where the Canadiens in 1993 were Canada’s last team to win the Cup.

“That’s obviously something that I’m sure every coach in Montreal doesn’t take lightly,” Montreal coach Kori Cheverie said. “To be able to bring a championship back to Montreal, I think would be celebrated by all the teams, and would be something extremely exciting for our fans and for the city.”


Minnesota’s lineup is crowded with current and former U.S. national team players, from Coyne Schofield and Grace Zumwinkle to Kelly Pannek, Taylor Heise and Lee Stecklein. And it’s backstopped by Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney, the same tandem that led the U.S. to gold at the 2018 Olympics.

Toronto has a Canadian national team flavor to it, with a brain trust made up of Team Canada GM Gina Kingsbury and coach Troy Ryan.

The roster features three players who finished in the top-10 in league points, led by Spooner, who had a league-leading 20 goals and 27 points, In net, Kristen Campbell paced the league with 16 wins, three shutouts and 22 games played, while ranking second with a 1.99 goals-against average.

While Minnesota’s slump came at the end of the season, Toronto overcame a 2-5 start to reel off 11 straight wins and finish 17-7.

Minnesota coach Ken Klee was pleased to have Toronto pick his team as an opponent. The former NHL defenseman laughed when saying his family already will be in Toronto this week to attend a wedding.


The teams evenly split their four-game season series, with three of the games decided by one goal and two in overtime. They last met Saturday, when Boston clinched its playoff berth with a 4-3 win on Kaleigh Fratkin’s goal with 80 seconds left in regulation.

Boston scored the fewest goals in the league with 50 and was led by Switzerland national team star Alina Muller, who had four goals and a team-best 16 points. The team was bolstered by midseason trade additions in Susanna Tapani of Finland and Lexie Adzija, who filled Boston’s needs down the middle.

While Knight had a middling season, finishing with six goals and 11 points, U.S. national team defenseman Megan Keller was a two-way force in finishing second on the team with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) and 9-plus rating.

The goalie matchup pits two national team starters in American Aerin Frankel for Boston and Canadian Ann-Renee Desbiens for Montreal.

Second-place Montreal is led by Poulin, who finished tied for second in the points race with 10 goals and 13 assists despite missing three games with a lower-body injury. The team’s core is rounded out by Laura Stacey, who is engaged to Poulin, and Erin Ambrose, who finished second among PWHL defensemen with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists).

Behind the bench are two of the league’s three female coaches, Montreal’s Cheverie and Boston’s Courtney Kessel. The two also serve as Team Canada assistants under Ryan.


AP Women’s Hockey:

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