PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
It's fitting that, as everyone somewhat cheekily looks ahead to the official announcement of a new union-backed PWHPA league, that the PWHPA's Dream Gap Tour has achieved something that looks and feels like high-stakes playoff hockey. Both of Friday's semifinal matchups went to overtime and the teams looked as evenly matched as ever at Great Park Ice in Irvine, the practice facility of the Anaheim Ducks.
Runaway regular season winner Team Harvey's was pushed to the brink by last-ranked Team Sonnet in a busy, back-and-forth affair that featured a classic Marie-Philip Poulin snipe and excellent goaltending at both ends from Ann-Renée Desbiens and Nicole Hensley. Harvey's scored first on Poulin's perfect shot, well into the second period. The tying goal for Team Sonnet came in the third period from Claire Thompson, whose shot through traffic slipped past Desbiens.
Harvey's found themselves out-shot by a wide margin (28 to 41), but they did what they have managed to do all season long by creating quality scoring chances seemingly out of nowhere and trusting in Desbiens. They also, ultimately, would have to find a way to win in extra time.
For the semifinals, the PWHPA adopted an overtime format of 3-on-3 for a full 20 minutes, followed by a shootout if the tie was not broken (which would have included 3 shooters, then no repeat shooters if still tied until the whole roster had been used). But, it didn't come to that. Emily Clark earned her first-star honors by scoring the OT winner and also being part of the setup to Poulin's goal. Before two minutes could elapse in the overtime, Clark used a burst of speed to get around Thompson. Her first shot was stopped by the tip of Hensley's right pad, but she picked up her own rebound and found the back of the net to punch the Team Harvey's ticket to Palm Desert.
Initially the broadcasters suggested the second game of the night at Great Park Ice would possibly start at 7:30 rather than 7:00 Pacific time, but because of the quick OT, it was able to start as scheduled. Team Scotiabank scored first after a tentative few opening minutes, ripping a rebound shot past Maddie Rooney. But Team adidas seemed to pull away after that, finding the tying goal on a redirect late in the first period, as Sarah Potomak tipped in Jessie DiGirolamo's shot from the point. Meaghan Mikkelson continued the trend of starting offense from up high, putting a laser beam past Kristen Campbell in the dying seconds of the first to put adidas up 2-1.
Early in the second, Kayla Vespa continued her offensive hot streak by scoring top shelf on Campbell after a nifty drop pass by Sarah Nurse in transition, and adidas was up 3-1. Earlier in the season, Team Scotiabank would have probably found themselves frustrated and taking penalties, but instead, they kept things tight and kept pushing their offense.
Of course, there were still penalties – there usually are – but they didn't seem to unravel the whole pace of the game as they have in the past. Still, it was a bit of a journey for them to get through 60 minutes and force OT. To start the third, Kristen Campbell was replaced with Emerance Maschmeyer. Campbell had been playing well, but the change seemed to spark a real difference in how Team Scotiabank were executing their game. The turning point came with just under 7 and a half minutes to go in the third. Laura Stacey was in pain after blocking a Brigitte Lacquette shot with her arm, and after shaking that off, instead of going to the bench, she managed to pick up a loose puck and get a mini-breakaway, outskating two surprised Scotiabank defenders and getting a shot off on Maschmeyer. Maschmeyer made the stop. If that goes in, adidas probably takes this game in regulation.
Instead, Scotiabank ended up with a power play, and they started to make adidas pay. After a lot of cycling without a lot of shots, Victoria Bach took a pass after a faked shot by Lacquette, and went high on Rooney to make it a one-goal game. The goal was reviewed by the on-ice officials after some confusion about how the video review could actually, technically, be seen – the PWHPA installed GoPro cameras in the nets to allow for video review, and it took some time to get the footage. But it was a good goal.
With under 3 to go, Scotiabank tried to pull Maschmeyer a few times, and she had to run back to her net at least once to stop Jill Saulnier from finishing on a wicked pass from Nurse. Mikkelson took a late penalty with 1:10 to go, giving Scotiabank a 6-on-4 opportunity, and it was Bach again who got the tying goal on a scramble in front of Rooney with the player advantage. There was still a wild minute or so of play to go, including a huge breakaway opportunity for Nurse, who ended up being offside.
A little more time went by in OT than Emily Clark had needed in the previous game – featuring stellar stops at both ends by Rooney and Maschmeyer – who did finally get to stop Sarah Nurse all alone. But then Blayre Turnbull went the other way, and she beat Rooney. That goaltender switch really payed off.
With that, Team Scotiabank pulled off an upset – the gap between adidas in 2nd place in the regular season standings and Scotiabank in 3rd was wide. They'll meet Team Harvey's tomorrow at 7:30 PM Pacific/10:30 PM Eastern at Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert, home of the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the AHL affiliate of the Seattle Kraken.
At 3:00 PM Pacific / 6:00 PM Eastern, Team Sonnet and Team adidas will play the consolation game at the Toyota Sports Performance Center, which is the practice facility of the Los Angeles Kings in El Segundo.