Montreal is still searching for their first win at Verdun Auditorium after being pushed to the sixth round of a shootout by a Toronto squad that was desperate for a win, no matter what shape it took.
Toronto came out hard, looking like a team determined to stop their skid down the standings. They were connecting well on passes, playing strong defense, and getting quality stops from Kristen Campbell in her sixth straight start. But seemingly everything they could put on Ann-Renée Desbiens was stopped, and in thrilling fashion – Desbiens made 16 saves in the first period alone. It was Montreal who broke through first about halfway through the opening frame, with Leah Lum sending a shot across Campbell's pads from the boards. Sarah Bujold was waiting to put it home at the other side. Toronto didn't let up, though, and continued to put shots on net.
They continued to pour the pressure on in the second and finally got rewarded, as Rebecca Leslie carried the puck deep and shot it towards the Montreal net. Nobody picked up Jocelyne Larocque back door and she was able to put it behind Desbiens. The tie was short-lived, though, as a scramble in the neutral zone somehow sprang Marie-Philip Poulin, unbidden, into the Toronto zone all alone. She put a dagger behind Campbell and took the 2-1 lead back for Montreal. There were more ARD heroics that kept the lead for Montreal, but Campbell hung in as well.
Toronto came out flying again in the third and managed to keep their energy high, and tied the game at 2 early on Maggie Connors' first of the season. It all started with some very focused puck management by Toronto at their own defensive blueline to move into the neutral zone safely. Leslie protected the puck well and carried it into the offensive zone, getting knocked down on the play but leaving it for Connors, who was able to rocket the puck past Desbiens from the high slot.
A disallowed Toronto goal late in the frame felt like a tipping point. Leslie deflected a shot by Fast on Desbiens from in tight and poked the rebound through the goaltender, with Compher potentially helping it across the line. But the whistle had blown and it was called no goal. Leslie then took a roughing penalty on her next shift by putting her glove in Erin Ambrose's face. But Toronto was able to kill it on the strength of blocks by Emma Maltais, Alexa Vasko, and Jesse Compher, and prevented any shots from getting through to Campbell.
Toronto very nearly had it in the bag after that kill. Kati Tabin obliterated Maggie Connors along the boards, earning a penalty, but before Montreal could touch up, Connors was able to push the puck forward to Sarah Nurse. Nurse then got the puck to Natalie Spooner driving the net. Spooner beat Desbiens, giving her team a 3-2 lead. There wasn't a lot of time left, so it felt possible – even likely – that Toronto would hang on for the three regulation points.
Marie-Philip Poulin had other ideas. With less than a minute remaining in the game, she carried the puck in on her own, weaved her way through Toronto's defense, and moved in on Campbell to tie the game at 3 goals apiece. For as strong a game as Jocelyne Larocque had overall, she lost MPP, and the seas parted – no one really challenged the Montreal captain, and she singlehandedly forced overtime.
It wasn't a nice and simple overtime, either. Blayre Turnbull slashed Laura Stacey who was about to have a clean breakaway on Campbell, so Toronto had to kill a 4-on-3 penalty. They pulled off the kill, though, and there weren't further whistles until the end of the overtime period.
The PWHL's first-ever shootout was a fitting ending to this war of attrition. Normally, it's a bummer for a great game to end in one-on-one skills competition, but in this case, the shootout deconstructed everything that had happened up until this point, rather than simply putting on the brakes. Part of that was giving Kristen Campbell and Poulin reps against each other and seeing who blinked first.
Shootouts in the PWHL start with five rounds, and the catch is that teams can re-use shooters at any time, even during the initial five attempts. So it should come as no surprise that Montreal elected to shoot first and use Marie-Philip Poulin four times in five rounds. Campbell stopped her twice; then Vanišová shot wide of the net. Poulin netted her third attempt on a nifty backhand in the fourth round. At the other end of the ice, Desbiens beautifully thwarted Connors and Spooner (the latter with a poke check) before Hannah Miller scored. Sarah Nurse was also stopped by Desbiens, leaving the shootout tied headed to the fifth round.
Campbell stopped Poulin's final attempt handily, and Miller couldn't get past Desbiens a second time. Campbell stuck with Laura Stacey as well in the sixth round and kept the puck out. Former Les Canadiennes defender Lauriane Rougeau was called upon to shoot for Toronto, and she picked the corner above Desbiens' shoulder, glove side. Her shootout winner gave Toronto their much-needed second win of the season.
Three up, three down
↑ ↓ Who is to say? Why not both? – Toronto and Montreal are now both a quarter of the way through their regular seasons with 6 games under their belts. Montreal has looked relatively consistent after a slow start (their abysmal 5% power play conversion rate notwithstanding), whereas Toronto has found their game only in fits and sputters. This win gives Toronto a bit of a reset button, but is perhaps a gut check for Montreal that they'll need more from players not named Marie-Philip Poulin to put games away against desperate opponents. It's a potential fork in the road for each of these teams and the path only gets tougher from here.
↑ Teamwork – Toronto got this win by playing a consistent style of hockey up and down their lineup. Very little changed for them regardless of the matchup – they supported the puck, put shots on net, and got the win by grinding it out. If they can truly play together as a unit, they will continue to stay in the hunt for Ws regardless of who is on the scoresheet. It's a big if, though. This league has proven highly competitive and Toronto may need game-breaking performances to go further – but there's a lot to be said for consistency, if they can manage it.
↓ Toronto's defense, again – On the flip side, Toronto can't be happy with their sudden breaks in defensive coverage leading to each of MPP's regulation goals, not to mention Bujold's goal and the Montreal power play opportunity they had to weather in OT. They got the offense they needed to lift them, but the need for it was self-inflicted. Tightening up those lapses will be necessary.
↑ Kristen Campbell – If she was going to get a night off it wasn't going to be this one. Steady as she goes.
↓ TOI – I need the PWHL to start tracking and posting player TOI and shifts for my physical and emotional health.
VP's Player of the Game
Rebecca Leslie – She set up Larocque perfectly, was dogged on the puck to create the chance for Connors, and very nearly had a go-ahead goal of her own. Leslie has five assists on the season already and is demonstrating elite playmaking in a way she hasn't really had a chance to since her first pro season with the Calgary Inferno in 2018-19. If Toronto starts stringing wins together, her name will feature prominently on the score sheet.
(Photo: Arianne Bergeron/PWHL)