PWHL Toronto’s Extraordinary Season

PWHL Toronto opening game
Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

PWHL Toronto’s journey from worst to first has been remarkable, even in a season full of firsts for the brand new league. It began with a disheartening 4-0 loss to New York in the PWHL’s historic first game, followed by three more losses in their first five, firmly planting Toronto at the bottom of the league standings in the early going.

With the most players from Canada’s national team compared to any other PWHL squad (and its head coach Troy Ryan), many observers expected the team to have built-in chemistry. However, key players like Sarah Nurse, Blayre Turnbull, and Emma Maltais initially struggled to get on the scoreboard. Only Natalie Spooner was performing up to expectations, scoring the first home and away goals in franchise history and earning 11 points in their first ten games. She also scored the first hat trick in team history with three goals against Boston on February 14.

However, veteran defender Jocelyne Larocque hinted that the early struggles might pay off for Toronto: “You know, having to battle through adversity makes you stronger, so our backs may be a little bit against the wall, but there’s still a lot of hockey to be played.”

Netminder Kristen Campbell struggled mightily at the beginning as well. Her stats for the first five games were a 0.876 save percentage and a 3.46 goals-against average (GAA).

The turning point came in a 4-3 shootout win against Montreal. The team played tougher and grittier, got timely goals and solid goaltending. Campbell stopped Marie-Philip Poulin three out of her four attempts in the shootout (there are five rounds, and players are allowed to shoot more than once).

On January 20, going into that shootout game, they were dead last, and their playoff chances were 26%. They lost to Ottawa and plunged to 16% before starting to put together some consistent performances.

The turnaround in February was crucial for shaping their entire season. After the Battle on Bay Street against Montreal at Scotiabank Arena (Toronto won 3-0) they moved into a playoff position in mid-February. As the month went on, the wins kept coming – five in total, not dropping a game the entire month. Storming into March, they carried a six-game winning streak, stretching it to nine as they started to connect on offense and appeared dominant.

Rachel Flanagan, assistant coach, reflected, “It’s really about trying to play to our identity. And I think in those first stretch of five or six games, we were close, we just couldn’t find a way to score. So I don’t think that we were necessarily playing bad hockey at the beginning. We just sort of figured out how to consistently play with less of those dips in our game.”

Free agent signee Renata Fast added, “I think early on in the season there was just so much information thrown at us through training camp, and we have such a great group of girls, and everyone wants to go out there and execute what we’re being told to execute, and people were gripping their sticks tightly and not just playing that free game. It took us a little bit of games to work through some things and everyone just playing confident and playing their game, and maybe simplifying some of our systems and we’ve really hit the ground running since then.”

The defensive pair of Fast and Larocque played a huge role in the team’s dominance. They logged more minutes than any other defenders in the league, and were counted on by the coaching staff for reliable shutdown defense, timely goals, and leadership.

“I think what’s special about our group is we’ve had the same feeling the entire season,” Sarah Nurse commented.

“Everybody talks about the not-great start that we had, but if you look back at the games that we played at the beginning of the season, we played the same way. Things just weren’t working out for us, things weren’t clicking, and as we progressed this season being able to manage the emotions, the highs and lows, and be able to be pretty steady throughout the season.”

Natalie Spooner took over the PWHL goal-scoring lead with two goals against Minnesota, moving ahead of Poulin. On March 20, she tied Alex Carpenter with 18 points, and on March 23, her two goals against Ottawa gave her the overall PWHL scoring lead (15 goals, 5 assists, 20 points). Poulin is still in third place with 17 points, even though she missed Montreal’s last three games.

“I feel like I’m playing the same way I try to play all the time, but yeah, just trying to play the right way and use my body, get pucks to the net, use my speed, and finish when I can,” Spooner remarked.

Campbell’s numbers in February were impressive as well: a 0.946 save percentage and a 1.60 GAA.

According to Spooner, “We feel great about her. We knew that once we kind of got a few wins under our belt she’d be cruising, we knew how good she was. And I think that now we see it and everyone else sees it, just how stellar she is in net, she’s a brick wall – she’s got the size, she’s got the athleticism, and she makes huge saves for us.”

Both Spooner and Campbell were named SupraStars of the Month for both of the inaugural February and March editions of the new recognition.

In mid-February, their playoff odds went to 50% and continued upward, to 72% as they entered March, and now soaring to 99%. They just need a point to ensure that they will finish in at last the top four (four teams qualify).

“We’re not really focusing too much on the standings,” Spooner commented, “but really just trying to take it one game at a time. And I think if we’re playing the way we’re playing now and kind of continuing that, I think we can move up the standings for sure.”

They ran their win streak to 11 after a dicey victory over Boston at home where they looked vulnerable. In the last game before the world championships, they visited Ottawa and lost 5-3, even though Spooner continued her strong play with two goals. Jocelyne Larocque’s absence was noticeable (she had received a one-game suspension). It looked like some of the absolute dominance was developing a few cracks, but after the break for the Women’s World Championship, it’s expected the team will bounce back and finish strong.

Cee Benwell

Longtime hockey player and fan, host of PWHL Puck Drop Podcast and GameDay Hockey on YouTube, X, hockey writer and proud supporter of women's hockey.

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