PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
Exactly one week after Minnesota's Team adidas captured the U.S. crown for the 2021 Secret Dream Gap Tour, the Canadian leg ― a seven-day tournament taking place in a "segregated environment" in Calgary, Alberta, and on nearby Tsuut'ina Nation ― gets underway.
Due to pandemic restrictions, this tournament will mark the first competitive games for the Canadian PWHPA hubs, based out of Calgary (Team Scotiabank), Montreal (Team Bauer), and Toronto (Team Sonnet). It'll also be the first games all season for any players who did not attend Canadian national team training camps this year, and the first opportunity to hit the ice as a team for athletes from Calgary and Toronto, who have been particularly limited by local COVID-19 measures.
In terms of what to expect, the answer, quite frankly, is: who knows? It's a pandemic. Beyond off-season player movement, of which there was a fair bit, none of these regions have played a game in well over a year. Most of the athletes haven't played a game in that long, either. Given the lack of playing opportunities, even mainstays may be relatively unknown quantities this time around. Not to mention that non-national team players in Calgary and Toronto have been limited in their practice opportunities, which is a training dynamic that has allowed some to thrive, while others struggle. Basically, it's anyone's game.
Local advantage: All players have been in town long enough to mitigate the jetlag, but Calgary will be still be looking to take whatever it can get in terms of home-ice advantage. Not to mention that (as far as this ex-Albertan can tell) pretty much everyone within 90 minutes of the Rockies spent a solid part of the past year hiking/biking in the mountains, which is a solid upgrade from basement workouts and neighbourhood jogs.
Absentees: Calgary will be without Halli Krzyzaniak, Amanda Pelkey, Jordyn Zacharias, and Micah Zandee-Hart. Three of those four have national team experience, and two of them would be defensive mainstays if available. Plus, non-national team players have had limited practice opportunities due to Alberta's pandemic restrictions, so Team Scotiabank will have to gel quickly. Also: CAL? A bad abbreviation won't alter their chances on the ice, but let's face it; Calgary is CGY, CAL is California. It hurts every time I look at it.
Kristen Campbell: The netminder impressed well enough at Hockey Canada camps to earn herself a spot on the centralization roster, which, for a goalie, is essentially (barring disaster) a guaranteed place on the Olympic squad. This, despite no prior senior national team appearances. Everyone who knows Campbell speaks incredibly highly of her work ethic, and after a year of working in the shadows, this will be her first chance to show off why she got the nod.
Alex Poznikoff: The 5-foot-2 forward was a standout at her hometown University of Alberta, with a U Sports scoring title and a national championship to show for it. Poznikoff ended her university career with a broken ankle ― an injury she recovered from just in time to see her season cut short once again, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the U Sports championship one day in. Her name may not be familiar to those who don't follow Canadian university hockey, but it probably should be.
Cohesion: Unlike the other two regions, Montreal ― training out of Centre 21.02 ― was granted an exemption to Quebec's pandemic restrictions, meaning that players were able to get on the ice together throughout the season, even if they were masked and prevented from doing certain drills. Despite having several new faces, they're the only group that's been practicing for any length of time, which should give them some advantage heading into the showcase.
Player Distribution: Montreal's line-up includes just four defenders, though that's probably a bit misleading. Forwards Karell Emard and Sam Isbell have both played defence regularly in the past, so expect to see at least one of them on the blue line. Still, Montreal has a long list of absences: in addition to defenders Melanie Desrochers and Kim Poirier and reliable depth forwards Maude Gélinas and Tracy-Ann Lavigne, the region will be missing reigning Olympic MVP Mélodie Daoust.
Kristin O'Neill: One of a handful of young players to crack Hockey Canada's centralization roster, O'Neill is a natural centre who's been deployed primarily at the wing at national team camps, so it'll be interesting to see where she lines up. Known for her speed, the first-year pro will be a trusted two-way presence for Montreal.
Catherine Dubois & Alexandra Labelle: I may be cheating by putting two people on one line, but this duo starred at l'Université de Montréal and promise to be strong depth players here. Dubois was among the most offensively gifted players in the country at the U18 level, but a serious illness early in her university career nearly led her to retire by age 21. Labelle, for her part, scored the game winner in the semifinals and a hat trick in the title game to lead the Carabins to the 2016 national title, and led all players in scoring at the 2017 Universiade ― a tournament that included Russia's senior national team.
Defence: Toronto has nine players who have been centralized by Hockey Canada in view of the 2022 Olympics, and four of those are on defence: Renata Fast, Jocelyne Larocque, Ella Shelton, and Claire Thompson. Not to mention two-time Olympic medalist Laura Fortino, who is widely considered one of the best defenders in the world ― even if the national program disagrees.
Ice Time: Much like Calgary, the Toronto group has been severely restricted in its training opportunities. Although the national team players were on the ice for regular skills sessions, the PWHPA squad was unable to practice throughout the year. The good news is that five of the six defenders have been able to train together all season; the bad news is that the full team has not been so lucky.
Claire Thompson: The Princeton grad was named to Canada's 2020 World Championship roster and selected for centralization, but due to the pandemic, she hasn't suited up for the national team since her debut at the 2019 Canada-USA joint camp/series, which was held in lieu of the 4 Nations Cup. Thompson is a responsible defender with a good first pass and potential to quarterback the power play, so it'll be worth watching how Toronto uses her.
Ella Shelton: Another strong two-way defender in her first year post-college, Shelton was a reliable point-scorer for Clarkson, while remaining a stable defensive presence. Like Thompson, she's transitioned to the pro game in a particularly strange year, but still managed to earn her way onto Hockey Canada's centralization roster. I'd expect Toronto to lean heavily on its young D, which may be a useful preview for international competition down the road.
Click here for the full showcase scoring system (note that tiebreakers differ for the Canadian showcase).
(Photo credit: Heather Pollock/PWHPA)