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Around the Rink in the PHF: Playoff Edition

The Pride are the champs, again, and this week we (try to) cover as many angles as we could with lots of perspectives and thoughts.

Michelle Jay

Welcome back to Around the Rink!

Hard to believe that as I type this Season 7 is in the books. We literally had a little bit of everything since we closed the book on Season 6.

New name, who this? As the NWHL transformed into the PHF. In a strange, cruel twist of fate the Connecticut Whale - who had their best season ever - lost both the first game of the season and the last game of the playoffs. In between all of that we saw so many amazing things such as, but not limited to: Toronto going undefeated at home, Connecticut winning the regular-season title on the final day, an All-Star Game and an Outdoor Game in Buffalo, and multiple players achieving personal milestones that reflect longevity, superior skill, and dedication to a common goal.

From the bottom of my heart, a sincere thank you to all of the players of the six PHF teams for your openness, time, and assistance when I put this together all season long. Also, a special thanks to my teammates at TIG and everyone who reads these, shares them, and comments on them. I, and we appreciate it.

Michelle Jay

They won’t be weekly in the off-season, maybe monthly or bi-monthly. But ATR will return - because there is never a dull moment.

And here, we, go!

Point Shots

1* The Boston Pride had us all right where they wanted us. All season long we questioned if they could do it again? We wondered if they tinkered and added too much, and they sat there - all back of the bus - in third place. They played possum and when it was all on the line, they pushed all their chips to the middle of the table and said let it ride.

And they rode past the Buffalo Beauts 6-0. They dispatched the Toronto Six 5-1. And they roared past the Whale with three, third-period goals after trailing 1-2 entering the final period of the Isobel Cup Final.

“We’re down 2-1 going into the third against the number one team, who’s been the best team in this league all year. It was a tough feat. They have great players, great coaching. The Whale have an awesome future. I’m really proud of our team, battling the way they did and never quitting,” Head Coach Paul Mara said during his 15-minute long press conference following his second Isobel Cup triumph.

“The adversity that this team went through off the ice - some of which you did see and some of which you didn’t - Fratty, Tori, and some other things, to come down here and put that aside and focus,” added Mara. “I say when our team is focused, our team is intense and playing with passion there isn’t a better team here. For the last five days our team focused, they played with heart, and our team played with passion. When we do that, this is what happens.”

1.1* You may notice in some of the Cup celebration photos that Boston defender Lauren Kelly had a finger taped up pretty good. Did you know that Kelly played all three playoff games with a broken finger? Honestly, I didn’t know until after the playoffs were over and I’m pretty sure I mentioned on Twitter at some point I thought that she was playing some of her best hockey of the season in Florida. Her defensive presence was a big reason why a lot of Beauts and Six players were invisible down there.

You didn’t see Kelly with the Cup on the broadcast likely because ESPN2 dropped their coverage about a minute after captain Jillian Dempsey was handed the Cup to they could air some MMA thing.

“Hearing about Ty leaving the position of commissioner at the end of the year, I texted her and said the only way I want this to end is with me and you - and you handing me the Cup to bring to my team,” Dempsey recalled with a smile almost two hours after reclaiming the Cup.

“I said: TY REMEMBER THE TEXT, REMEMBER THE TEXT! Just an incredible moment looking over and seeing all of those faces, seeing everyone wanting the Cup so badly. Just elated, it’s that ‘on top of the world’ feeling. I’m just so proud of everybody.”

1.2* Friend of the PHFuture Considerations Podcast (and a guest on Ep. 4) Taylor Wenczkowski has had quite the start to her pro career, ehh? Two seasons, two championships, two Cup-winning goals, endless memories, and inspiring the next generation near and far. This GWG was a bit different though. Whereas last postseason her goal gave Boston a 4-2 lead in a game they won 4-3, this time around her goal came 18 seconds after Evelina Raselli had tied the game 6:39 into the third period. How do you spell clutch? W-E-N-C-Z-K-O-W-S-K-I, that’s how.

“She is all heart. She wears her heart on her sleeve each and every day. She works so hard, both in practice and in the games. We’ve seen this coming for, two years now,” Mara said Monday night. “We see it every day in practice, obviously a lot of people don’t, but every day we’re like - she is right on that cusp of breaking out to be one of the elite players; in our league, in this country. She’s an awesome kid, awesome player, awesome competitor and I’m really proud of what she’s done for us.”

For all her accolades, Wenczkowski is as humble as anyone I’ve met. Confident, yes, but still humble. “It’s awesome. Especially to have our families here right now,” she told media members around 1:00 am amid the celebration. “It was really hard last year to win and not have my parents here. I’ve never really won a championship, so to have my full family here - cousins, my parents - I’m kind of speechless.”

“Kind of like my interview (on the ice) I didn’t really have words and I choked up a little bit. I'm really happy we won again and to share it with this group.”

1.3* A big reason for the success of the Pride this season was the play of their two European stars - Raselli and Tereza Vanisova. Not only did Raselli record a point in each playoff game (2g-1a), not only did she score the tying goal in the third period of the title game, but she also won 30 of the 37 face-offs that she took over the three games - including winning 9-of-9 in the game against the Beauts.

“Evelina won so many clutch face-offs and then her getting that tying goal - that was everything for us to get the momentum back for us,” Dempsey said of her teammate. “She’s one of those players that shows up and always does the right thing, she’s so consistent and so reliable, and she showed that today. She was rewarded with getting that tying goal and getting everyone going. We love Ev and it’s been amazing to have her here and playing for Boston.”

Vanisova had a goal and an assist in the three playoff games and her presence alongside Wenczkowski and Sammy Davis gave Boston the deepest lineup in the league once she returned to the team in time for the final two regular-season games.

“I think it was really important. I told Tereza after the game that she made us a better team and I don’t know if we would have been as successful as we were without her,” said Wenczkowski. “Backs against the wall, everyone worked really hard but she is so talented, and I was fortunate enough to play with her last year. She’s a game-changing player.”

1.4* A big reason for Boston’s three-game sweep in Florida was the play of their goaltender Katie Burt - who gave up three goals (on 85 shots) in three games and the play of the defense in front of her - which was airtight. Kali Flanagan’s speed and creativity were on full display and she led all players with five points (2g-3a) plus had the GWG against Toronto.

Amanda Boulier and Kaleigh Fratkin dished out three assists each, and Jenna Rheault had the empty-net goal that sealed the Cup win with a kiss. The defense corps only took two penalties and blocked 14 shots while defending against the best of the best.

“We all complement each other pretty well. I think we all started to gel these last few weeks and it’s a really supportive group of seven,” said Boulier after winning her second Isobel Cup (2018 with Minnesota). I’ve seen teams where you have some really great, talented players and there is too much internal competition. We really didn’t have that. We were supportive of one another and I think it was important down the stretch to be so cohesive as a unit.”

1.5* Kudos to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins for hosting the back-to-back champs following their win on Monday night. They deserve to be celebrated like champions, and I’m hoping to see them pop up in a few other local places in the coming future.

2* I think the only more heart-wrenching way for the Whale to lose that Cup Final game would have been in overtime, or maybe an own goal. I will say this though - of all the five playoff games we saw in Florida - the Cup Final was the best, most evenly played game. Each team had its moments of brilliance, and each team made some mistakes. In the end, Boston made fewer mistakes or didn’t pay as steep a price as Connecticut did.

“It’s experience. You could see a team that won it before has a lot less stress behind it, a little more carefree attitude - well we won it last year, this is a bonus if we win it again. You can see that in their roster,” Whale Head Coach Colton Orr said during his 13-minute long media availability following the toughest loss of his career. “They don’t really get too phased by the game, the ups, and downs, the different swings.”

“That’s the same kind of thing that we’re looking to gain. When you go down, you can still come back. We’ve done that all year long and that’s the experiences you want to take and we’ll take this as we’ve been here, we’ll learn from it for next year. It’s one of those things where this is going to hurt for a while. But after that you have to turn the page - like we have done all year long in each game and each weekend,” Orr added, “this one will hurt for a bit, but there’s a lot we can take from it for next year.”

2.1* I agree with my colleague at The Ice Garden, Mike Murphy - if we name a Coach of the Year for this season it should be Orr. The way he has turned around a team that went 2-20-2 in Season 5 to a team that was one period away, 13 minutes away from its first Isobel Cup is phenomenal. And they were the best team in the PHF this season - largely because of the way he has built that team and resurrected it from the ashes.

“A big message (from me to the team) was to be proud of what we did. It hurts. And it's going to hurt for a while,” said Orr. “But when you look back at the season at some point, the memories you have from it, the accomplishments we made were amazing. At some point, it will be a season that we look back on and say, wow, we had a good year. This has been the most memorable hockey season of my life.”

Matt Dewkett

2.2* After Orr was done with his media availability, Kennedy Marchment and Abbie Ives joined us as well. They lamented the missed opportunities but agreed that a loss like this is motivation to get back to the same position again and to learn from the experience.

“The Whale are a phenomenal team and I don’t think that anyone should think differently about that. It’s tough in a one-game series, in this type of format. Whoever gets the lucky bounces, I mean we hit three crossbars tonight. That’s tough,” said Marchment, who will likely win PHF MVP this off-season.

“That doesn’t happen every night. Unfortunately, tonight wasn’t our night. I don’t think we’re the worst team, I don’t think we’re a second-place team, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t our day. Next year and going forward - the Whale will be good and will be known for this. This might be a turning point for them and I think that’s awesome to be a part of.”

3* Marchment’s comments on Monday night sounded eerily familiar to me. I heard virtually the same thing a day earlier from the Minnesota Whitecaps after their loss to…the Whale. Allie Thunstrom rang a shot over Ives’ shoulder that clanged off the crossbar in the second period and Alex Woken nearly opened the scoring in the first period but all she got was a loud PING.

“We had an unlucky shot go off our player’s hand, and then one off a face-off play where we got confused about what we were doing. We hit a few crossbars in that period and as Allie said, it's a big difference,” said Minnesota co-Head Coach Ronda Engelhardt.

3.1* Thunstrom sounded as if she may not be back with the Whitecaps next season - which is insane to think about - but she didn’t sound like her career is over just yet.

“It’s been such an honor to wear the Whitecaps jersey; from where we started a decade and a half ago up til now. Being here in Tampa and seeing, in a non-hockey market, the excitement. Kinda like Ronda said it’s special to see how far the entire league has come,” said Thunstrom, who led the league in goals for the second time in three seasons.

“All six teams won some pretty huge games this year. It really comes down to who’s got it that night, who’s getting the bounces. Tonight, unfortunately, it wasn’t us. It stings a lot because I think we came into this finally hitting our stride, and feeling confident as a group. Unfortunately, that’s how it ends for us.”

Michelle Jay

The Whitecaps were a few posts away from beating the Whale, the Whale were a few posts away from beating the Pride.

What if…Toronto clinched first place on the final Saturday of the regular season? The Six would have played the Whitecaps in the semifinals and the Whale would have played the Pride. Sometimes, it’s all about the matchups.

I do think there will be some changes in Minnesota this offseason, but I’m not certain what they are at the moment. I do believe they will try to get a little younger, but we’ll see.

3.2* Despite the Whitecaps' failure to reach the final for the first time since they joined the NWHL in Season 4 there was some good news for them as we saw the return of the best goaltender in league history - Amanda Leveille. In Friday’s 4-1 elimination of the Metropolitan Riveters, it didn’t look like Leveille had missed a beat and she turned aside 32 of the 33 shots she faced.

“Honestly with her injury, we didn’t know how long she would be out. She got back on the ice full swing this week, so she didn’t have too many practices under her belt, but when I told her she was playing she was like a little kid in a candy store - so excited,” Engelhardt said. “Lev loves to play, loves to compete and we know every time she’s in the net she is competing to do her best. She came back from a pretty big injury.”

We don’t know what that injury was but we do know whatever it was it didn’t hamper her in either game. She looked like the same old Lev we all know and love.

“I’ve been wanting to put on the jersey and be with my teammates for the longest time now. And when it actually happened, it’s just so incredible,” Leveille told the media after her triumphant return to the ice. “Just looking around the room I feel so confident being able to play because of the teammates I have in front of me. I can’t say enough how awesome they played in front of me today and I’m so grateful to be a part of this team and the opportunity to play today.”

4* The Whitecaps and Beauts still have one game left folks! They are playing an exhibition game in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 2 as part of a partnership with the ECHL’s Tulsa Oilers, whose game will follow the PHF game. The connection in all of this randomness? The ownership is the same for all three teams - Andy Scurto & Neil Leibman of NLTT Hockey Ventures, LLC.

All players are being compensated for the game and participation is voluntary. As far as we know, a day before the game, the Beauts will be sending 19 regulars and the Whitecaps will have 11-13 regulars making the trip. Both teams will be wearing specially designed jerseys for the game which will be auctioned online afterward. The players will also skate with some local youth teams Sunday morning.

4.1* Our friend Allie Morse is stepping away from her playing career and as I said on Twitter, we are all better people for knowing you, Allie. Just a wonderful, selfless person, and we cannot wait to have you join us on the PHFuture Considerations Podcast this summer.

4.2* The Beauts' season came to a crashing halt when they were eliminated 6-0 by the Pride in the opening game of the PHF postseason last Friday. A week later it was another tough Friday for Beauts fans as co-captain Marie-Jo Pelletier announced her retirement to pursue a career as an LPN.

Some of her many achievements:

I got that vibe listening to MJP speak after the game, I think I told someone that, and possibly the same vibe from fellow co-captain Taylor Accursi. Hope I’m wrong, but we’ll see.

Accursi’s reply when I asked if we will see her on the ice again next season, “I knew that was coming. I’m definitely open to opportunity and we’ll leave it at that.”

“The Beauts have always been prideful on having a family, not just teammates. You learn a lot from losses. There are going to be a lot of players that go home and think about what happened today and what we could have done better,” Accursi later said. “That’s what’s going to make them better - to reflect on; whether it's tonight, tomorrow, two weeks from now - looking back and saying what could I have done better.”

After wanting to not be the underdog anymore the Beauts still found themselves there at the end of the season in last place and as the first team eliminated. I don’t expect a lot of changes in Buffalo this off-season, but certainly more than one or two. They have a good, young core that I believe can be a force to be reckoned with if they get some more experience under their collective belts.

5* For the second straight season Toronto’s Isobel Cup hopes were smashed by the Pride in the semifinals - last year it was 6-2, this time 5-1. The Six were a lot different this season away from home, but it was a little shocking to see them get the doors blown off them again.

Toronto Six Vs. Boston Pride At Warrior Ice Arena Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

At the end of the season, Elaine Chuli didn’t look the same as she did before missing the outdoor game with an undisclosed injury. After not giving up more than three goals in any of her first 13 appearances this season, Chuli gave up four, five, and five in her final three games - and she gave up three in a span of 2:14 at the end of the first period against Boston.

Mikyla Grant-Mentis didn’t record a point on Toronto’s lone goal, was on the ice three times when Boston scored, and captain Shiann Darkangelo lost 15-of-23 face-offs. The special teams for the Six were a bonus all season long, but in the playoffs, it was the complete opposite - Boston was 3-for-3 on the power play after only getting four power-play goals in the regular season.

5.1* “I think the lack of experience playing in big games like this affected us; Boston took advantage of it and that was the difference,” said Six Head Coach Mark Joslin. “If I’m fortunate to be a part of this group again next year I’m excited about who is coming back. Obviously, we’ve got some unfinished business and we’re all pretty sad, but I’m sure we’ll be pretty hungry to get going.”

I can’t see a scenario where Joslin isn’t back, especially with his good friend (and current assistant coach) Angela James now an investor. Here’s what Natalie Marcuzzi told me about the coaches during the last regular-season weekend in Connecticut.

NWHL Isobel Cup Playoffs - Semifinals Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

“The T6 has had incredible coaching from the start - both last year and this year. We have coachable players, which is also important. Not to mention these coaches know what they’re doing, they’re experienced and they read the game well,” Marcuzzi told ATR. “It’s always helpful to get their perspectives on the bench to make sure that whatever we are doing out there will help make us successful.”

6* For the fourth consecutive season, and for the third consecutive time in the playoffs, the Riveters' season ended at the hands of the Whitecaps. As was the case for most of the season, they relied too much on their top players and they were either too gassed to make a difference or sitting in the penalty box when the team needed a goal or on a power play.

“I think the first period was eye-opening for a lot of players. Minnesota is a fast team, they’re physical,” said captain Madison Packer. “so they pushed the pace and we were kind of on our heels a little in that first period. I thought we reset and played different in the second, but we got outplayed.”

“Minnesota played better and outworked us for a big majority of the game. We had some chances we couldn’t capitalize on, we just couldn’t get the bounces tonight. I don’t think they’re a better team overall, but they played better than us tonight and they deserved to win the game.”

6.1* Head Coach Ivo Mocek heads into another off-season wondering what could have been (if his team didn’t run into the Whitecaps in the playoffs). He did see his defense improve throughout the season, especially with players like Kristen Barbara and Rachael Ade playing big roles, and they may have found an answer in goal with Brooke Wolejko. But they will need more help up front, or need to find more players they trust to play rather than sit on the bench.

“It’s definitely disappointing. We felt that we prepared well, we felt our last three weekends we were playing close to the hockey that we wanted to play. We felt ready when we came here and unfortunately that game - we talked about it downstairs after the game - was a summary of our entire season,” said Mocek.

“Too many ups and downs. We had some really good stretches of the game, really good moments, and then two shifts later we just, were not sharp mentally. It was a perfect display of our (whole) season in that game.”

Michelle Jay

Around The Rink Awards

Voting for PHF awards and the announcement of the winners should be happening soon - hopefully next season we can get some real trophies? - and then it’ll be full speed ahead for a great Season 8. But before we get there, here are my picks for some honors that we likely won’t be voting on.

My All-PHF Team

F - Kennedy Marchment (Connecticut)

F - Mikyla Grant-Mentis (Toronto)

F - Jonna Curtis (Minnesota)

D - Allie Munroe (Connecticut)

D - Taylor Woods (Toronto)

G - Elaine Chuli (Toronto)

My PHF All-Rookie Team

F - Taylor Girard (Connecticut)

F - Kennedy Ganser (Buffalo)

F - Anjelica Diffendal (Buffalo)

D - Stephanie Sucharda (Toronto)

D - Emilie Harley (Buffalo)

G - Jenna Brenneman (Minnesota)

I didn’t have a vote for Playoff MVP, but my vote would have been - 1) Wenczkowski, 2) Flanagan, 3) Burt - hard to argue with any of the choices.

Notable Quotables

There were a lot of quotes to sort through between the end of the regular season and the end of the media availability after the Cup Final at 1:15 am ET. Here are some of my favorites that I didn’t squeeze into the column above.

“They’ve done an amazing job as a team to be professional. You come down to Florida and there's a lot of white noise out here, family coming down to visit, a lot of people around, activities like pools and bars, and whatnot. But we came for a purpose and the team has really taken to that. It's something we talked about. This is business - there’s plenty of time to celebrate and party afterward. But right now we’re here to finish the job.” — Whale Head Coach Colton Orr on his team being focused on hockey in Florida.

“There was a lot of traffic in front of me so I didn’t actually see it, but I heard it hit the post. So I spun around, and when I spun around I actually put it in my own net. So I, I scored that one (laughs) which is not a good feeling for a goalie. Everyone’s been there. It was really quick and Babstock and I fist-bumped after the game, I helped her out with that one.” — Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille on the lone goal she gave up against the Rivs.

“Panic? No. Our team doesn’t panic. We have veterans like Jillian Dempsey.” — Pride Head Coach Paul Mara after Friday’s win over Buffalo.

“Being able to score my first goal at a time like that was really exciting and being able to celebrate with my teammates after was even better. After that, we were able to open the floodgates and put them away. It was definitely a big moment (to get my first goal there).” — Pride defender Kali Flanagan after her first PHF goal in the win over Buffalo.

“We just got outworked. Period. We had pucks at the net, we had bodies in front of the net. So, we got outworked and that’s it. Minnesota did a better job of picking up sticks, pushing us out of the way. I had two and three people on me sometimes in the offensive zone. They had a game plan and they executed well, they - we got outworked, they wanted it more tonight. Sometimes it's that simple. It's unfortunate and a hard pill to swallow, but you learn the lesson and you move on.” - Riveters captain Madison Packer after being eliminated by Minnesota.

“They’ve had a phenomenal year. They’re a fun team to lose to, in terms of if somebody has to beat us…the Connecticut Whale from three years ago to now is incredibly impressive. Everything that they’ve done, they do it the right way; nothing but respect for them. They’re a fun team to play against. It's always a battle and they’re going to come at you every shift. We expected that and tried to match their punches.” — Whitecaps forward Allie Thunstrom after losing to the Whale.

“It’s been people coming in here and believing in the culture, believing in wanting to compete. When we talk to people that want to be here, everyone in that dressing room had the same goal in mind and the same idea of how we wanted to play. It’s more the team-first mentality. We don’t have any selfish players on this team at all, they all bought in. What we did here is take a group of people who really believe in one another and it showed all year. If we didn’t want to win so bad, if we didn’t work so hard, it wouldn’t hurt so much. I think that’s the culture we have, it’s only going to make us stronger with this experience.” — Orr on his team’s turnaround from two years ago.

“Do you want me to take my bucket hat off? These were the champion hats we were given!” - Pride defender Amanda Boulier sitting down to do postgame interviews.

“To lose like that, the go-to thing you think of is it makes you want to come back and be better. We all want to play together again, we want to right this ship and bring a championship to the Whale. I’m sure that’s what we’ll be thinking about over the next few days. Hopefully, it works out.” — Whale goaltender Abbie Ives is hoping for another run at the Cup with the same group.

“Demps comes alive in these big moments. She is just captain clutch and she was so excited all day (laughs). At breakfast, we had to calm her down - like Demps, the game is in 14 hours, you gotta harness your energy a little bit. She is just our fearless leader and the bigger the moment, the bugger she is. It was just so cool to see her get that first one for us and lead throughout the rest of the game.” — Boulier on Dempsey’s leadership.

“I think it's part of the reason why it is so tough, because of what Shannon means to this team, this organization. What she has gone through as the captain of this team, she’s given her heart and soul to the Connecticut Whale, to the NWHL, to the PHF, and to women's hockey. I’ve never seen a better ambassador for the game in my career. She’s just a phenomenal leader that everyone looks up to and wants to play for, wanted to win that for her. I never had any indication in our conversations about where she goes from here, I would, hah, I can’t even begin to think about her retiring. Hopefully, maybe she can find a way to, go for one more.” — Orr trying not to think about a future without Shannon Turner.

And last - because she’s ALWAYS the last player out of the locker room, but not least, Jillian Dempsey closes this thing out for us. What is it like to get the Isobel Cup and see all of your teammates waiting for you to bring it to them?

“It’s just pure elation. Everybody, it’s something we’ve been working towards all year. With the ups and downs of the season - it can be trying at times - we know we have to push and grind through it. It’s really about coming together at the end and having everything click when it matters most.”