PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
The PWHPA traversed the highways of southern Ontario for its most recent showcase and will now finish the regular season with two sets of games in the US before championship weekend in California.
The four teams of the PWHPA made their way across southern Ontario this past weekend, playing a series of showcase games hosted by teams in the Ontario Hockey League. Each team played twice, with Team adidas going 2-0. Team Harvey's and Team Scotiabank each went 1-1, while Team Sonnet lost both of its games.
Team Harvey's did a good job of spreading out their offense across sixty minutes, with goals in each period en route to the win. They also doubled up their opponent in shots, 44-22.
Jessie Eldridge recorded a three-point night, with two goals and an assist. Laura Fortino had two points (1G, 1A), while Marie-Philip Poulin and Bailey Larson also scored. On the other side, Ella Shelton and Blayre Turnbull scored for Team Scotiabank.
Ann-Renée Desbiens made 20 saves in the win, which came in Peterborough in front of a school-day crowd on Friday afternoon.
The biggest crowd in PWHPA showcase history came out for Friday evening's game in St. Catharines, with a recorded attendance of 4,301. Team adidas wasted no time, getting on the board early with a goal from Kayla Vespa in front of the net. Amanda Kessel picked up a tap-in moments later, and it was a 2-0 game less than five minutes in.
The offense continued, as Kristin O'Neill executed a perfect toe drag to beat goaltender Erica Howe once again. Despite the imbalance in scoring, the game was overall fast-paced and both teams seemed to have good energy. Team Sonnet had multiple chances as the second period went on, but couldn't solve Maddie Rooney.
Kaitlin Willoughby added an empty-net goal late in the game. Vespa, O'Neill, and Laura Stacey each had two points, while Rooney was perfect with 25 saves.
Amanda Kessel and Meaghan Mikkelson combined for the game-winning goal for Team adidas, with just 1:08 left in overtime in Saturday's tilt in Barrie.
Kristin O'Neill scored the other goal for Team adidas on the power play in the first period. Hayley Scamurra finally tied the game – also on the power play – late in regulation. Team Harvey's withstood a late penalty kill, forcing the game to overtime.
Here's a look at Mikkelson's game-winning tally:
Team Scotiabank rallied following Friday's loss, pulling off a big win in Kitchener on Saturday night to close out the OHL Showcase of the Secret Dream Gap Tour.
Blayre Turnbull scored twice in the win, including a shorthanded breakaway that beat Nicole Hensley. Ella Shelton also scored, while Victoria Bach notched the empty-netter insurance tally.
Hannah Brandt had the lone goal for Team Sonnet, a power-play marker.
(Note: the PWHPA website currently doesn't have any statistics for either of Saturday's games.)
I spoke with a few players after Friday's game, including Team adidas goaltender Aerin Frankel. Frankel is in her first season with the PWHPA after five seasons at Northeastern, and she's enjoying her first venture into the pros.
"The organization this year and the amount of talent that we have in the league has been super special," Frankel said. "Every event that I'm a part of is very competitive and it's really great to have some of the best players here playing and going to different cities. We've had so much fan support. It's been a very exciting season so far. I'm looking forward to finishing it up."
This season has also been a bit different format from years past for the PWHPA, with its region-agnostic teams. This means that players practice at their "home" hubs, but come together in different teams for the actual showcase games.
"I've really liked it [the format]," said Abby Roque. "It's good to get to play with the same people every weekend and really have that team atmosphere. Obviously, not practicing together, it's a little different because you can't really work on all of these things. But you can do video and things like that, and that's been really helpful – just to be able to have the same people on your team every day, and really get to bond with new people."
Team adidas forward Sarah Nurse echoed those thoughts.
"Every game is super competitive, and us being able to mix teams has been pretty cool," Nurse said. "Getting to play with Amanda Kessel – I've never, ever played with before. She's somebody who I didn't appreciate as much as I probably should've, because she's so good. She's so smart, and it's fun playing with her, not against her, this time."
The PWHPA will continue its regular season with a few more showcases before playoffs. First, teams will head to Wesley Chapel, Florida for a weekend series February 24-26, with each team playing two games in the Tampa Bay Showcase, hosted by the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.
Following that, a two-game series hosted by the NHL's Washington Capitals will be hosted in Arlington, Virginia March 4-5 at Medstar Capitals Iceplex. The days prior will feature high school and youth clinics, along with an "adult chalk talk" on Friday night.
The association recently announced its championship weekend will be held in California between March 10-12, in partnership with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Seattle Kraken and the AHL's Coachella Valley Firebirds. Games will be held in Irvine, El Segundo, and Palm Desert, with seeding to be determined based on the remaining regular-season games.
Players are definitely excited to get to California.
"I think the travel aspect of this league is also what makes it so special," Frankel said. "We've played quite a few showcases in Canada, but we're also having the opportunity to play in the US as well. I know we've played in Pittsburgh, but going to spots like California, Florida, DC, I think we're gonna have really great turnout for the fans there and we're very excited to play in front of those cities."
The growth of women's sports in California is an added bonus.
"I'm a warmer weather person," Roque said. "Out west, with hockey, they really love it out there, and it's getting bigger and bigger. It's really fun to go to those environments where it's really catching traction. They love women's sports, especially in California, on that West Coast, so it'll be a really exciting atmosphere."
As Frankel said, Roque agreed that the upcoming games in the US will be a nice change – and a relief, in a different sense.
"I honestly think we're a little sick, as Americans, of going through the Toronto airport," she said. "I think that's our main thing. Most of the time, you get sticks or bags lost along the way. We're excited to just not have to go through customs or anything like that for the rest of the way."
Despite Team adidas doing some work to close the gap, Team Harvey's still sits atop the standings with 30 points.
Teams receive three points for a regulation win, and two points for an OT or shootout win. They also receive one point for an OT or shootout loss.
Each team has five games remaining before the championship weekend.
(Photo: Melissa Burgess)