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PWHL Toronto picks Minnesota as 1st-round playoff opponent

PWHL Toronto has chosen fourth-place Minnesota as its first-round playoff opponent, the team announced on Monday evening.

That means second-place Montreal will take on third-seeded Boston in the other best-of-five semi-final series, with the winners of both facing off in another best-of-five series in pursuit of the first Walter Cup championship.

Toronto finished first overall in the six-team league over the regular season, earning the power to choose between playing the third or fourth seed. It’s one of several unique rules the PWHL has adopted in its first season.

The team announced its decision in a video posted to social media on Monday, which featured Natalie Spooner’s son, Rory, helping announce the pick.

“It was definitely not an easy decision,” Toronto GM Gina Kingsbury said. “There’s no easy opponent in this league. We looked at all different angles.”

That includes analytics, the health of the opposing teams, how they’ve played recently, and the impact of travel. Staff also consulted players.

Female ice hockey teammates smile while wrapping their arms around each other in celebration on the ice as fans applaud from behind the glass.
Toronto GM Gina Kingsbury says staff consulted players when deciding who to play in the first round. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

“We know that we’ve got our work cut out for us against Minnesota,” Toronto captain Blayre Turnbull said, pointing to the performance of Minnesota’s goaltending tandem of Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney, and offensive threats like Kendall Coyne Schofield and Taylor Heise.

“They’ve got some star players who I’m sure are going to be really excited to face us, and they’ll bring their best games in the playoffs,” Turnbull said. “It’s going to be a challenge but it’s one that we’re up for and one that we’re excited to take on.”

Toronto comes into the playoffs on a four-game winning streak that has been powered by Spooner and Sarah Nurse, who have scored a combined 15 points in the last four games. Spooner finished first in the league in both goals (20) and points (27) over the regular season.

After a rocky start in January, Toronto emerged as a defensive powerhouse thanks to one of the best blue-line pairings in the world in Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast, hard-to-play-against forwards like Turnbull and Emma Maltais, and a turnaround in net from Kristen Campbell. The team won 11 games in a row from the end of January to the end of March.

On the other side is a Minnesota team that hung around the top of the standings for much of the season, and carried a five-game winning streak into the world championship break in April.

Women's hockey player greets fans before playing a hockey game.
Toronto forward Natalie Spooner finished first in the league in goals (20) and points (27) over the regular season. (Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

But Minnesota hasn’t looked the same since that break, struggling both to score and to prevent other teams from scoring, particularly on the penalty kill. The team needed only one point to clinch a playoff spot but couldn’t do so over five opportunities, and only secured a playoff spot thanks to several losses by Ottawa.

Games one and two of the best-of-five semi-final series will be on Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m. ET at Toronto’s Coca-Cola Coliseum.

The series will shift to Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center for game three on May 13. Game four, if necessary, will be May 15 in Minnesota, and if a game five is needed, it’ll be in Toronto on May 17.

2nd-place Montreal draws Boston

Montreal and Boston will look to pick back up where they left off on Saturday, when Boston kept its season alive with a 4-3 win in a back-and-forth, physical game.

Boston went into the third period of Saturday’s game with a 3-0 lead, only to see Montreal storm back and even the score. Kaleigh Fratkin saved the day for Boston by scoring with 1:20 left, giving the home team the regulation win needed to clinch a playoff spot.

“The way that our group stuck together is the type of team that we are,” Boston defender Megan Keller said after the win.

Boston reset and came back from the world championship break looking reinvigorated, earning 13 of a possible 15 standings points.

Hockey players from opposing teams battle for the puck.
Montreal and Boston will begin their playoff series on Thursday. (PWHL)

They’ll face a Montreal team that has also been red-hot since the break, particularly with a player advantage. Montreal’s Mikyla Grant-Mentis scored twice on the power play against Boston on Saturday. Then, captain Marie-Philip Poulin tied the game at six-on-five with the goaltender pulled.

Montreal’s top trio of Poulin, Laura Stacey and Kristin O’Neill have registered a combined 17 points over the last five games.

Games one and two are set for Thursday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET at Place Bell in Laval, Que. The series moves to Boston’s home rink at the Tsongas Center for game three on May 14 and four, if needed, on May 16.

If a deciding game five is required, it’ll be on May 19 in Laval.

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