PWHL Finals - Game 3: Boston 1, Minnesota 4
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PWHL Finals - Game 3: Boston 1, Minnesota 4

PWHL Finals - Game 3: Boston 1, Minnesota 4 by Zoë Hayden

The series returned to Minnesota on Friday night, with 9,054 fans in the stands to witness what could be the penultimate game of the PWHL playoffs.

What happened?

Minnesota struck first and early, with Taylor Heise ripping a shot from the slot through traffic just 59 seconds into the first period. It marked her fifth goal of the playoffs (after having had only 4 in 19 regular season appearances). Minnesota pressured hard throughout the frame, and while Boston got some looks at Nicole Hensley from in tight, they weren't able to even the score. Minnesota extended their lead late in the first, with Sydney Brodt pouncing on a loose puck that settled for a split second in the paint before Brodt was able to flip it home.

Boston continued to struggle to get offensive zone time in the second; meanwhile, piled shots on Aerin Frankel and came very close quite a few times, notably on a shot that hit the post behind Frankel and somehow bounced free of danger, and a 2-on-1 where Taylor Heise very narrowly missed scoring her second or setting up a rebound chance.

But Frankel held the line, with some help from her defense, and 2-0 was still not an insurmountable hole to be in – and it was the score we expected to have heading into the second intermission.

But Alina Müller cut the lead in half with just 1.4 seconds remaining in the second period, as Jamie Lee Rattray took an airmail pass from Jessica Digirolamo along the boards and flipped it in front towards Susanna Tapani, who was driving the net. Tapani got a stick on it to throw it wide to Müller, who had a wide-open cage to shoot for with Hensley fully committed to Tapani. It was 2-1 with only enough time left for a faceoff, and Boston went to intermission much closer than they had been just a moment ago.

But Minnesota re-gained the 2-goal advantage early in the third period instead off a rush play, as Boston turned the puck over high in their own zone. Kendall Coyne Schofield drove deep to create a coverage gap, and Michela Cava slipped right in, scoring from a backhand on her knees after Frankel went down. It was Cava's third of the playoffs.

Boston would get a late power play, with Megan Keller drawing a tripping call. But Courtney Kessel pulled Aerin Frankel to the bench while the puck was in contention along the boards, and it ended up popping free. It was a footrace between Hilary Knight and Grace Zumwinkle, and all due respect to Knight but she was not going to win that. Both players fell on the play and Zumwinkle got a stick on it, putting the puck, and herself, into the empty net for the jailbreak goal that freed Claire Butorac. Minnesota took a 4-1 lead and negated Boston's power play.

Minnesota takes a 2-1 series lead, and puts themselves in a position to win the Walter Cup on home ice on Sunday.

Three up, three down

↑ Michela Cava supremacy – Michela Cava is the blueprint. What I mean by that is she's exactly the kind of player that pro hockey is for. The 30-year-old has a pro career spanning back to 2016 including the CWHL's Toronto Furies; the SDHL's MODO, Brÿnas IF, and Luleå HF; the ZhHL's Vanke Rays; and the PHF's Toronto Six. Cava led the SDHL in regular season points in 2018-19 with MODO, and won the SDHL championship with Luleå in 2020-21. She split the 2021-22 season between KRS and the Toronto Six; after the Six were eliminated from Isobel Cup contention, she returned to KRS and proceeded to become their playoff MVP with 6 goals and 11 assists in 8 games en route to the team's ZhHL Championship win. In 2022-23, playing the entire season with the Toronto Six, she won the Isobel Cup and contributed 3 goals and 3 assists in 4 games, earning yet another honor as playoff MVP.

Now, she's back in the playoff MVP conversation with PWHL Minnesota in her first season. If Minnesota goes on to win the championship, Taylor Heise is also in the mix for that honor, but Cava's impressive body of work speaks for itself and it's hard to think of any other women's hockey player who has so consistently made an impact at the professional level, particularly in the postseason. Cava has never represented her country internationally and has been doing this all on the professional stage, in a variety of leagues which play a variety of different styles. Michela Cava is pro hockey at its best.

↓ Boston's offense (and defense!) – Boston didn't do much to match Minnesota's urgency in the offensive zone and only mustered 19 shots throughout the game. Minnesota's shot total wasn't much higher (25), but they accumulated a lot of those shots from the middle of the ice and high-danger areas. Boston did an incredible job against Montreal in terms of turning around their opponent's attack at the defensive blueline before it had a chance to develop. They've lost their rhythm with that against Minnesota these last 2 games and it's costing them. They are looking more like the team that we thought might miss the playoffs entirely before the international break.

↑ Alina Müller, despite that – Müller's first of the playoffs was a great way to see her get rewarded for her strong individual play throughout the postseason. Boston is going to need more from its stars if they want to turn this series around, and Müller's willingness to shoot the puck quickly on a play like that is something to build from. (And I just have to call out both Digirolamo's pass to Rattray which set up the goal as well, plus Tapani's quick pass for the primary assist. If Boston's top players can execute more sequences like that they might be able to send this series back to Lowell.)

↓ Special teams – At this point, aside from the ill-advised shorthanded empty-netter, they're just canceling each other out.

↑ Series clinching opportunity – Minnesota becomes the first team with an opportunity to win the Walter Cup. A Sunday evening game could draw an even bigger crowd to Xcel Energy Center – they'll have a chance to watch their team hoist a championship trophy on home ice, which is one of the most special moments in all of sports.

↓ Do or die – Boston now finds themselves in an elimination situation for the first time in the playoffs. They have now lost two straight playoff games, and they didn't seem to adjust after the first loss, either. As a team that has been streaky all seaosn, they're now are trending in the wrong direction. Time for Courtney Kessel's team to dig deep.

VP's Player of the Game

Nicole Hensley – Hensley only saw 19 shots in Game 3, but she was equal to almost all of them. Müller's goal was a coverage breakdown off the rush where she really had no chance – but otherwise, she was perfect, holding down rebounds and making it very hard for Boston to generate chaos in her crease. In a game where she wasn't getting a lot of action, she was consistently sharp and put Minnesota on the brink of a championship.

(Photo: PWHL)