Toronto executed their game plan nearly perfectly on Friday night to get their first-ever home win at Mattamy Athletic Centre.
A hard, forechecking first period with very few shots between the two teams ended with no score. But the home team maintained a slight edge and kept it going into the second period, keeping New York well to the outside and minimizing chances against Kristen Campbell. Toronto also managed New York extremely well in the neutral zone. While they continued to mount shots on Corinne Schroeder, very few of them seemed to present any danger to her. Both sides blocked shots, disrupted passes, and battled for the puck along the boards emphatically. Teams traded chances on the power play in the first as well – but it was nothing doing for either side.
It was well into the second period when it occurred to me that this might be the longest a PWHL game has gone without a score. Both sides seemed to be getting frustrated with not being able to use the middle of the ice effectively, and little by little, things started to open up, at least for Toronto. With under six minutes to go in the second period, they were out-shooting the visitors by a count of 20 to 7. Then, Sarah Nurse took a tripping penalty, and Toronto put together a great PK which seemed to build their confidence. Campbell was tracking the puck extremely well; shots were getting blocked.
It was shortly after that penalty expired that Hannah Miller caught Natalie Spooner with a pass in the neutral zone. Spooner gained speed and outmaneuvered Johanna Fällman, cut in front of Corinne Schroeder, and flipped the puck to her backhand. It was an outstanding sequence for Spooner who continues to be unstoppable even amid a struggling Toronto offense.
The action picked up after Spooner's goal, with some end-to-end action 4-on-4, including an outstanding stop by Schroeder when Emma Maltais and Maggie Connors were able to move in on her uncontested with a give-and-go. But the period was nearly over, and the home team went to the locker room with the lead.
In the third, Toronto continued to play smothering defense. Despite a narrow 1-0 lead, it didn't feel like they were waiting for the other shoe to drop – they continued to execute defensively, apply pressure, and wait for their opportunities. One finally came on the power play, a source of concern for most PWHL teams of late. This time it was Spooner again parked at the side of the net, who took advantage of her own rebound bouncing off the end boards to beat Schroeder for the second time.
New York pressured, but Toronto pressured back. Campbell was extremely sharp to everything that came her way, and she did have to make several big stops. This time, Toronto was able to grind it out – and it didn't feel tenuous. They came together and got a team win (Spooner's goals plus everyone else), and flattened New York's transition game into near-oblivion. Schroeder couldn't steal the game for them because they couldn't score. The scales tipped, if just a little.
Three up, three down
↑ Toronto special teams – Toronto gained momentum from their kills and had some good looks on the power play, including Spooner's second goal. Succeeding as an opportunistic team requires some consistency and they got it from their specialty units.
↓ Toronto shot selection – It's improving somewhat, but Toronto players still seem to hesitate at times, looking for a better pass or a better lane, when they could be looking to generate something through traffic and chaos. For all the shots they generate, they need to be more willing to get some dirty ones. Spooner's insurance goal was the result of a great bounce and that's a good reminder to Toronto that they need to keep going to the net with both pucks and bodies and looking for those bounces rather than second-guessing when they step into a shot.
↑ Officiating? Maybe? – The officials in this game seemed pretty consistent on body checking, if a little sensitive about stick infractions. Abby Roque didn't like being called for the illegal hit that led to Spooner's PPG – it was the type of hit that officials have been letting go throughout the young season. But it was the right call.
↓ Games in hand – Montreal has the lead in the standings with 13 points, and Minnesota is close behind with 12. The next four teams in the standings all have 8 points, but have played varying amounts of games to get to that point. Saturday's games present an opportunity for Montreal and Minnesota to pull further ahead – or come close to being caught. But the top two teams staying top two and getting Ws would be good news for Toronto, who need to catch up to the middle-ranked teams. Toronto has played the most games of any team and still find themselves in last place by that virtue. Their ability to climb out of the basement will require a little help from others' misfortune. They're now one-third of the way through their regular season.
↑ NHL arenas! – Toronto has announced that the February 16 game against Montreal will be played at Scotiabank Arena, which can hold 18,800 for hockey. The game could potentially break the record for pro women's hockey attendance, previously set at Xcel Energy Center for the PWHL Minnesota home opener with a final official attendance of 13,316. Additionally, per WPXI in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will host a neutral site PWHL game on March 17, which may be at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins are scheduled to host the Red Wings at 6:00 PM that day, which is a Sunday (and St. Patrick's Day). The PWHL doesn't currently have any games scheduled for March 17, but there are two games with TBD locations and times listed for March 16: Ottawa vs. Boston and Toronto vs. Montreal. Either of those could become a March 17 matinee in Pittsburgh. The other could also become a neutral site game somewhere else.
↓ Transitions – If Toronto has more success this season, it'll be playing hockey like this – just punishing board play and chess matches in the neutral zone. It's not high flying hockey, but it can get the job done.
VP's Players of the Game
Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast – This game was about defense and Toronto's top pairing executed perfectly, whether blocking shots, disrupting passing lanes, or preventing a New York clearing attempt. They're starting to settle into the PWHL's pace and style. Toronto still needs to find way more on offense, but the D overall is starting to look more like what Gina Kingsbury was probably drawing up on draft day.