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PWHL playoffs: Breaking down the semifinal matchups

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The Professional Women's Hockey League begins its first postseason Wednesday as Toronto hosts Minnesota at Coca-Cola Coliseum. Montreal faces Boston in the other semifinal beginning Thursday.

Here are the keys to both matchups ahead of the inaugural Walter Cup Playoffs.

No. 1 Toronto vs. No. 4 Minnesota

Professional Women's Hockey League

Toronto has been the PWHL's team to beat since February. After a rough start, Troy Ryan's squad fired off an 11-game win streak to vault to the top of the league standings.

Toronto has outscored opponents 49-25 since February. No team comes close to its goal differential in this span, with Montreal ranking second at just plus-3.

In a league with an average save percentage over .918, Toronto's success has been largely rooted in its ability to convert at a high rate. The team has fired 26 shots per game since February, the lowest in the PWHL, but it still leads the league in scoring during this span.

Meanwhile, Minnesota has gone 0-5 since the international break and nearly missed the playoffs despite only needing one point in that final stretch to clinch a postseason berth.

Minnesota boasts the best five-on-five goal differential in the PWHL, but putrid special teams have cost Ken Klee's club game after game. It'll need to flip the switch quickly to have a shot against Toronto.

Keys to victory

Professional Women's Hockey League

As mentioned, Minnesota has had excellent results at even strength this season. The team has outscored the opposition 39-27 at five-on-five with suffocating defense and timely scoring. Minnesota also leads the PWHL with 30.7 shots per game and 26.3 shots against per contest.

So why would Toronto choose to face that kind of team? Well, Natalie Spooner has more power-play goals than Minnesota's entire team, and its penalty kill has allowed over three times as many goals as Toronto's.

Toronto's the most physical team in the PWHL with over 24 hits per game, while Minnesota is the least with under 12. However, Toronto has spent the second-most amount of time on the penalty kill, and Minnesota has spent the least.

The No. 1 seed will certainly embrace the playoff atmosphere and bring a punishing and fast style to the postseason. Given the state of Minnesota's special teams, Toronto will be more than happy to trade power-play chances. And if the officials swallow the whistles, then Toronto gets to dictate the style of play at five-on-five.

For Minnesota, its clear path to victory is playing as much of the series as possible at even strength. With an 8% power play and an abysmal 67% penalty kill, special teams have been an anchor on Minnesota's season.

Just look at the May 1 clash between these teams as a prime example. Toronto scored two power-play goals and didn't net a five-on-five marker until the third period. Without those player-advantage tallies, Minnesota would've carried a 1-0 lead into the final frame. Instead, it played from behind and ended up losing 4-1 with an empty-netter.


Professional Women's Hockey League

Blayre Turnbull will be tasked with shutting down Minnesota's top players. Turnbull hasn't been an offensive force as one of Toronto's three foundational signings, but her defensive value is immense.

She's among the most physical forwards in the PWHL and features on Toronto's staggering 91.8% penalty kill. Spooner and Nurse get the hype as primary offensive creators, but don't underrate Turnbull's importance to Toronto's success.

Turnbull will likely match up against Taylor Heise. The first overall pick in last summer's draft, Heise torched Toronto for a pair of highlight-reel goals in their first meeting in January.

Heise hasn't scored a goal in her last seven PWHL games. Minnesota desperately needs her to be a legitimate game-breaker in this series to combat Toronto's elite stars. But despite her drought, nobody would be surprised to see Heise flip the switch and go off in the playoffs.


Toronto def. Minnesota in four games.

No. 2 Montreal vs. No. 3 Boston

Professional Women's Hockey League

Montreal emerged as the PWHL's clear No. 2 team after Minnesota's struggles down the stretch. There's a case to be made that Montreal boasts the league's best forward, defender, and goaltender, making the high end of the roster a matchup nightmare.

The big development for Montreal since the return from the international break is its power-play success. Montreal has eight goals on the player advantage in 20 opportunities over the past five games after scoring five on 62 in the prior 19 contests.

Boston squeaked into the playoffs with a regulation win against Montreal on Saturday. The do-or-die nature Boston's been playing with, combined with its recent form, makes it a dangerous team entering the postseason.

Paths to victory

Professional Women's Hockey League

Marie-Philip Poulin versus Hilary Knight. Erin Ambrose against Megan Keller. Ann-Renee Desbiens across the rink from Aerin Frankel.

And yet the depth of the rosters could very likely decide the series.

Montreal has dealt with injury woes this season. Kennedy Marchment, Dominika Laskova, Ann-Sophie Bettez, and Sarah Bujold have all been sidelined entering the playoffs. With Montreal's depth taking a hit, Boston needs to take advantage of the matchups to win the series.

The top end of Montreal's lineup is dominant and will play over 20 minutes a night. The O'Neill-Poulin-Stacey line and Tabin-Ambrose pairing can only match up against one of Boston's two top forward lines at a time. It's vital to a Boston victory for whichever line gets away from the top Montreal unit to convert.

Montreal could break up the top line to build a deeper lineup, but then it would also take away from the immense high end the team has found. Montreal will also have to determine when to activate Melodie Daoust on her only 10-day contract of the playoffs, a choice that could make or break the series.

Boston is the PWHL's lowest scoring team and enters the playoffs having netted more than two goals just once in their past nine games. That occurred in the season finale against Montreal.

A hot Montreal power play could be the difference in what shapes up to be a low-scoring, tight series. Goals and chances are going to be hard to come by and Montreal has been elite at drawing penalties. Montreal has had 30 more power-play opportunities than Boston over just 24 games.


Professional Women's Hockey League

Ottawa's surprising decision to release Mikyla Grant-Mentis has become Montreal's gain. The skilled winger has featured in Montreal's top six in recent games and she finished the campaign on a high, tallying her first two PWHL goals in the season finale.

Grant-Mentis is a talented offensive creator and has the ability to break open a tight-checking contest. With Daoust likely to sign her 10-day contract later in the playoffs, Grant-Mentis will be relied on for secondary scoring early in the series.

Boston's Jamie Lee Rattray has proven herself to be a clutch player on the international stage with Canada. She hasn't had quite the offensive success many anticipated with only three goals and 11 points in 24 contests

Boston simply won't be able to get past Montreal scoring two or fewer goals. Rattray needs to find another level in the postseason to help Boston find that next gear offensively.


Montreal def. Boston in five games.

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