There was a bit of hangover from last year’s Isobel Cup championship game when the Boston Pride beat the Connecticut Whale for the Premier Hockey Federation title, 6-4.
There was plenty of talk about the Whale picking up from where they left off and challenging the Pride for the league championship.
But the Whale struggled to gain traction during this season when they moved into their new home at the International Skating Center of Connecticut in Simsbury. After 18 of 24 games, the Whale were at .500 with an 8-8-2 record.
Connecticut (14-8-2) won their final six games of the regular season to finish with a flourish and head to Toronto for a best-of-3 semifinal series with the Six beginning Friday at 3 p.m. at the Mattamy Athletic Center in the historic Maple Leaf Gardens building.
Game two is Saturday at 2 p.m. with game 3, if necessary, on Monday at 6 p.m. All games will be broadcast on ESPN+.
Toronto (17-5-2) finished second in the league this year behind the Pride and are looking for their first playoff win in the first-ever playoff matchup between the two teams.
This is the first best-of-3 series since the first year of the league in 2015-16 when it was called the National Women’s Hockey League.
“The group is really excited to finish the year strong. We’ve got our winning streak going, we’re playing really good hockey right now, and it’s always about how you finish not how you start the season,” said Whale captain Shannon Turner, who will be retiring after the season.
“It comes down to what we put on the ice, our production, our game and if we can play a full 60 minutes,” Turner said. “It comes down to take care of the (defensive) zone first and then the offensive will come out of that.”
Aggressive play out of the defensive end helped Connecticut beat up on the teams in the lower half of the league this year. The Whale led the league with eight short-handed goals. However, the speed and skill of Toronto and Boston posed more problems for the Whale when they took risks with the puck.
Rookie Brittany Howard leads Toronto with 16 goals in 20 games with veterans Shiann Darkangelo (12 goals, 13 assists, 25 points), a former player with the Whale, and Emma Woods (10 goals, 13 assists, 23) producing the best seasons of their careers. Toronto goalie Eliane Chuli (12-5-2, 2.57 GAA) had 12 wins in net for the Six.
“We have a lot of smart girls on this hockey team. There are games that they think more offense than defense but they know when it comes down to it that defense wins championships and that’s playoff hockey,” Toronto head coach Geraldine Heaney said. “They all know their roles and I know these girls will do whatever it takes to win and to sacrifice certain things that they may have to do on the ice.”
Connecticut’s Kennedy Marchment, who finished second in scoring with 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) and a record 18-game point-streak. It’s the second-straight season she’s led the Whale alongside linemate Taylor Girard, who had 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists). The Whale have shown the ability to score with eight players with more than 10 points and seven players with at least seven goals on the year.
Abbie Ives (10-6, 2.57 GAA) will be net for the Whale.
“I feel like we’re in a great spot right now,” Whale coach Colton Orr said. “We’re on that streak but there’s still more work to do and we always talk about continuing to get better and continuing to improve. For us, it’s just a business-like mentality.”
The two teams split their four regular season games. The Six beat Connecticut 7-4 on January 21 in Ontario only to see the Whale prevail the next day, 4-1. Toronto beat the Whale 5-3 in Simsbury on February 18 with Connecticut topping the Six, 5-4 on the next afternoon.
That victory over the Six began Connecticut’s season-ending six game winning streak.
The winner of the series will face either Boston or Minnesota in a one-game final for the Isobel Cup on Sunday, March 26 at the home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes (Mullett Arena in Temple, Arizona) at 9 p.m.
2023 PHF playoffs
Thursday, March 16
Minnesota 5, Boston 2, Minnesota leads series, 1-0
Friday March 17
Connecticut at Toronto, 3 p.m.
Saturday, March 18
Connecticut at Toronto, 2 p.m.
Minnesota at Boston (Bentley College), 6 p.m.
Sunday, March 19
Minnesota at Boston (Bentley College), 6 p.m., if necessary
Monday, March 20
Connecticut at Toronto, 6 p.m., if necessary
Sunday, March 26
Isobel Cup championship
Two semifinal winners, 9 p.m. at Arizona State University