Five Games Left: The PWHL Playoff Picture
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Five Games Left: The PWHL Playoff Picture

Five Games Left: The PWHL Playoff Picture by Zoë Hayden

With Boston's regulation loss to New York on Monday, the PWHL headed into the international break with no team having clinched a playoff spot. Each team has 5 games remaining on their schedule and will play each other team in the PWHL once. Let's take a look at where they are, how they're doing, and what it would take for them to be in the postseason – and other factors (like Women's Worlds) that are affecting how the PWHL season finishes.

The Teams

No. 6 – PWHL New York (3-4-3-9, 20 points)

New York hasn't technically been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, but they would basically need to win each of their remaining games in regulation to have any chance of sneaking in.

They did finally win a game after a long skid, beating Boston in regulation just before the break, capitalizing on power play chances to feast on a team that couldn't stay out of the box. New York has been scrappy and opportunistic all season, and has gotten hands-down some of the best goaltending in the league from Corinne Schroeder and Abbey Levy, but they haven't been able to translate that into consistent scoring and success.

New York heads into the break as the only team definitively on the outside looking in, and they're most likely to be playing for draft order points soon. Whether playing for the playoffs or the #1 pick, and despite their struggles, they do have offensive weapons who can change the course of a game. Jessie Eldridge in particular hasn't converted as often as you might expect, and Élizabeth Giguère is starting to put the puck in the back of the net. Alex Carpenter has basically been unstoppable all season despite the team's overall struggles, and Ella Shelton has been a revelation. New York probably can't win five straight and edge into the playoffs, but stranger things have happened.

PWHL New York Remaining Schedule

  • Saturday April 20 vs. Boston at Prudential Center, 3:30 PM Eastern
  • Wednesday April 24 @ Montreal at Verdun Auditorium, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 27 vs. Toronto at UBS Arena, 3:00 PM Eastern
  • Tuesday April 30 vs. Ottawa at Prudential Center, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday May 4 vs. Minnesota at UBS Arena, 1:00 PM Eastern

No. 5 – PWHL Boston (4-4-2-9, 22 points)

Boston has probably under-performed the most of any PWHL team based on what we expected after the draft. A team that looked on paper to be speedy, gritty, and adept at forcing turnovers and scoring dirty goals has often looked sluggish and tentative. They have had flashes of brilliance, but have rarely been able to string wins together, and it's hard to name a player on their roster who has consistently been able to create offense. Alina Müller leads the team in points with 3 goals and 10 assists. Their leading goal-scorers all have just 4 goals: Hilary Knight, Taylor Girard, Hannah Brandt, and Loren Gabel. They've been lackluster on the power play even compared to other struggling units and have drawn a league-low 44 penalties on the season. There just isn't much to call out about Boston and identify as a distinct strength, which is concerning at this point in the season. They're highly talented and they have won their fair share of close games, but this is a tough league to play in, to say the least.

When they have played a strong 60-minute game, it's usually been a committee effort. They can grind and score goals in transition and surprise opponents with speed – when they're not retreating defensively. GM Danielle Marmer made some trades late in the season to try to spark offense, and Susanna Tapani has been a workhorse for them since joining from Minnesota. Lexie Adzija, recently acquired from Ottawa, can be an asset to Boston's style as a big body to place in front of the net and go hunting for rebounds and deflections. Arguably that's what they've really been missing as a team to take them to the next level – those gritty efforts – but it's getting late in the year.

If Boston hopes to find their way back into a playoff position, they'll need to do better, and make sure they grab head-to-head points against Ottawa, New York, and Montreal in particular.

PWHL Boston Remaining Schedule

  • Thursday April 18 vs. Toronto at Tsongas Center, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 20 @ New York at Prudential CEnter, 3:30 PM Eastern
  • Wednesday April 24 @ Ottawa at TD Place, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 27 @ Minnesota at Xcel Energy Center, 1:00 PM Central
  • Saturday May 4 vs. Montreal at Tsongas Center, 3:30 PM Eastern

No. 4 – PWHL Ottawa (7-0-6-6, 27 points)

Ottawa has played perhaps better than their record suggests. They've suffered regulation losses while playing for long stretches as the better team, running into hot goalies. They've still yet to win a game that has gone to extra time and have given up their fair share of multi-goal leads. Right now, they find themselves ascendant in the standings having won 3 of their last 5 games in regulation and taking shootout losses in the other two games.

Emerance Maschmeyer has been Ottawa's backbone in net, and the majority of their offense runs through their top 2 lines – and those lines are both extremely good. Gabbie Hughes and Daryl Watts have been superstars and centers Kateřina Mrázová and Brianne Jenner have quietly been some of the most dominant players down the middle all season. I think it's fair to say that based on the performance as of late from the top six – even Daryl Watts alone – that no one wants to face Ottawa in the first round.

The trades that Mike Hirshfeld made at the deadline seemed designed to get more offense out of their bottom six, but that hasn't come to pass yet and we'll have to see how they perform down the stretch. A line of Tereza Vanišová, Natalie Snodgrass, and Akane Shiga could be one of the best third lines in hockey. In their first full game together (Ottawa's win over Toronto that snapped the latter's 11-game win streak), they generated 4 shots on net. Shiann Darkangelo is expected to fulfill the fourth-line center role for Ottawa. While the pieces they traded away in Amanda Boulier and Lexie Adzija are hard to replace – and indeed, Boulier's minutes are just being eaten by the top d-pair in Harmon and Tejralová – it's hard to argue with the results as Ottawa has found themselves back in the playoff race.

Ottawa has opened up a five-point gap on Boston for that fourth seed. Their April 24 home game versus Boston will tell us a lot about which of these teams has the juice to get over the finish line. They have three home games remaining and it should be a playoff atmosphere, to say the least – but they'll finish the season on the road, and depending on how Boston does, they might need to get points against Toronto at Mattamy in the final game of the season.

PWHL Ottawa Remaining Schedule

  • Saturday April 20 vs. Minnesota at TD Place, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Wednesday April 24 vs. Boston at TD Place, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 27 vs. Montreal at TD Place, 12:30 PM Eastern
  • Tuesday April 30 @ New York at Prudential Center, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Sunday May 5 @ Toronto at Mattamy Athletic Centre, 7:00 PM Eastern

No. 3 – PWHL Montreal (7-3-4-5, 31 points)

Montreal spent some time at the very top of the league, but headed into the international break on a season-high four-game losing streak and has been struggling with injuries as the season has gone on. Marie-Philip Poulin was dealing with an injury prior to the break, but seems to be recovering and is still in the lineup for Team Canada at Worlds. With several of their best depth players on LTIR, and a dynamic forward in Vanišová moved to Ottawa via trade, the pressure in the final stretch of the regular season – and in the playoffs – will be on Montreal's stars. But they'll need depth scoring as well to go the distance. If their lineup is healthy after Worlds, Montreal will likely be heading into the playoffs with a few more wins under their belt – and, if they win their head-to-heads with Minnesota and Toronto, they could even end up back in first place.

Montreal hasn't always played a complete game, but has been able to bail themselves out with big performances, whether it's Elaine Chuli playing lights-out or someone like Sarah Lefort stepping up to get an OT winner. They've also relied heavily on generational performances from Poulin and Stacey at times. The international break is a double-edged sword for them, because their best players will be playing a tough tournament schedule and could come back with bumps and bruises or worse. But it also means that the rest of their roster will be resting, practicing, and gearing up for the finish – and maybe they can get some players back from LTIR in that span. They've also shored up their core of reserves, signing Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Liliane Perrault, and Brooke Stacey.

Montreal's recent losing streak has erased the comfortable lead they once had over the bottom playoff seed, as they have just a 4-point lead on Ottawa. Boston also sits just 9 points back from them currently outside of the playoff picture. If Boston strings a couple regulation wins together and Montreal continues to struggle, things could get tighter at the bottom half of the standings. That said, Montreal has had an X-factor in so many games this season that puts them in the win column even when they haven't been perfect. I expect we'll see it again before the end of the season.

PWHL Montreal Remaining Schedule

  • Thursday April 18 vs. Minnesota at Verdun Auditorium, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 20 vs. Toronto at Bell Centre, 1:00 PM Eastern
  • Wednesday April 24 vs. New York at Verdun Auditorium, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 27 @ Ottawa at TD Place, 12:30 PM Eastern
  • Saturday May 4 @ Boston at Tsongas Center, 3:30 PM Eastern

No. 2 – PWHL Minnesota (8-4-3-4, 35 points)

Minnesota has been the most consistent team in the league since January 1, never getting too high or too low. They've taken their losses at times, but they've consistently been at the #1 or #2 spot in the league since the beginning of the season.

With two highly skilled goaltenders in Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney, they are tough to score against on any given night, and they've played a punishing, physical defense. They have allowed just 35 goals on the entire season – just 1.84 per game. Up front, they've had a dynamic offense, sparked by Grace Zumwinkle's 9 goals, usually scored with a flair for the dramatic. Kendall Coyne Schofield and Kelly Pannek are also having themselves a season, with Pannek getting the opportunity to showcase why she's one of the best two-way forwards in history. Abby Boreen, an offensive impact player only available on temporary call-ups throughout the season, may be available in the playoffs, and Michela Cava has shown an adeptness at getting through pretty much any defense for a zone entry.

Minnesota's only trade of the season instantly upgraded their blueline as coach Ken Klee has just let Sophie Jaques loose, with 2 goals and 5 assists in 10 games played since joining the team. The rest of the defense has also had offensive flair, from Natalie Buchbinder to Maggie Flaherty.

I don't see any holes in Minnesota's game. They just need one regulation win to clinch a playoff spot, but where they finish is up to them.

PWHL Minnesota Remaining Schedule

  • Thursday April 18 @ Montreal at Verdun Auditorium, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 20 @ Ottawa at TD Place, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 27 vs. Boston at Xcel Energy Center, 1:00 PM Central
  • Wednesday May 1 @ Toronto at Mattamy Athletic Centre, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday May 4 @ New York at UBS Arena, 1:00 PM Eastern

No. 1 – PWHL Toronto (10-3-0-6, 36 points)

Toronto's magical run has been the story of the inaugural PWHL season. They've been led by Natalie Spooner's eye-popping 15 goals and 5 assists in 19 games played, backed by an ascendant Kristen Campbell in goal, and have been getting contributions from throughout the lineup to put them in the first overall spot in the league headed into the break. In January, we were lamenting Toronto's anemic offense and poor puck management and were speculating that they wouldn't make the playoffs. Now they seem unequivocally like the team to beat.

Toronto is in the position they are in largely because of their ability, throughout their incredible 11-game win streak, to put opponents away in regulation. Their 10 regulation wins on the season are a league best and they play extremely well with a lead, playing tough team defense and continuing to threaten with scoring chances. They are a team that gets penalized a lot (perhaps, arguably, not enough), but their penalty kill executes at 92.9%.

Toronto were defeated 5-3 by Ottawa before the break, snapping their streak and giving them just a one-point lead on Minnesota for the #1 playoff seed. Ottawa desperately needed the 3 points. Toronto will face each team in the PWHL when the break resumes, and all four of them would love to get 3 points from Toronto before the season ends. They have a target on their backs and everyone knows they can be beaten, whether it's for draft order points or the opportunity to pick a first-round opponent. Toronto needs just 2 points to clinch a playoff spot, but they'll have to fight to hang onto that top seed. They might just do it, too, but it isn't going to be easy.

Like Montreal, the international break carries some risk for Toronto since seven players from their lineup are on the Team Canada roster, and it'll be interesting to see how PWHL Toronto (including GM Gina Kingsbury and head coach Troy Ryan) translates to IIHF action in an actual tournament situation.

PWHL Toronto Remaining Schedule

  • Thursday April 18 @ Boston at Tsongas Center, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 20 @ Montreal at Bell Centre, 1:00 PM Eastern
  • Saturday April 27 @ New York at UBS Arena, 3:00 PM Eastern
  • Wednesday May 1 vs. Minnesota at Mattamy Athletic Centre, 7:00 PM Eastern
  • Sunday May 5 vs. Ottawa at Mattamy Athletic Centre, 7:00 PM Eastern

The Tournament and the PWHL

The 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship will play its top division tournament in Utica, New York from April 3 through April 14, and 41 PWHL players will be participating.

Team Canada has 19 PWHL players on their final World Championship roster, including players from five of six PWHL teams: Laura Stacey, Marie-Philip Poulin, Kristin O'Neill, Erin Ambrose, Ann-Renee Desbiens (Montreal); Brianne Jenner, Emily Clark, Ashton Bell, Emerance Maschmeyer (Ottawa); Sarah Nurse, Natalie Spooner, Emma Maltais, Blayre Turnbull, Jocelyne Larocque, Renata Fast, Kristen Campbell (Toronto); Ella Shelton, Jaime Bourbonnais (New York); and Jamie Lee Rattray (Boston).

Team USA hasn't announced their final roster yet, but just 13 PWHL players were invited to camp out of 39 invitees. Only two pro defenders were invited – Savannah Harmon (Ottawa) and Megan Keller (Boston). The other defense is guaranteed to be from the NCAA. Aerin Frankel (Boston) and Nicole Henlsey (Minnesota) are in the mix as goaltenders. At forward, there are Alex Carpenter (New York); Jesse Compher (Toronto); Hilary Knight (Boston); Gabbie Hughes and Hayley Scamurra (Ottawa); and Kendall Coyne Schofield, Taylor Heise, Kelly Pannek, and Grace Zumwinkle (Minnesota).

Boston will have three players join other national teams, with Alina Müller joining Team Switzerland, Susanna Tapani joining Team Finland, and Emma Söderberg joining Team Sweden.

Team Czechia will bring four PWHL players to Utica: Ottawa's Kateřina Mrázová, Tereza Vanišová, and Aneta Tejralová as well as Minnesota's Denisa Křížová. Dominika Lásková of Montreal would also likely be joining Czechia were she not dealing with a lower-body injury.

Ottawa's Akane Shiga and Sandra Abstreiter will also be joining Team Japan and Team Germany, respectively.

All teams from the PWHL will have players at Worlds which has the potential to affect the rest of their seasons. Injury is an obvious risk in a tournament that compresses so many games into a short period of time. But on the flip side, it's great playing time for everyone involved. Shiga, for example, will likely see more ice time than she has in Ottawa. Any player (even one not named Natalie Spooner) could go on a scoring tear and return to PWHL action to pick up where they left off. It's also an opportunity for PWHL team staff to get a closer look at players from all over the globe who might be entering into the PWHL draft.

Unlike the NHL, the PWHL has been openly committed to maintaining international breaks and the opportunities they offer to their players, and this is the first major international tournament of the PWHL era – the same tournament you all know and love, but with more full-time professional athletes involved.

Stay tuned for more on the IIHF Women's World Championship including team previews, and our PWHL coverage will resume after the international break!

(Photo: PWHL)