Around the Rink in the PHF: Week 10

This week we hear from Natalie Marcuzzi, Meaghan Pezon, and we look at the goaltending situation in Minnesota.

Welcome back to Around the Rink!

Thank you to all of the players/staff of the six teams for your openness, time, and most importantly your assists when I piece these columns together. Also, a special thanks to my teammates at TIG and everyone who reads these, shares them, comments about them. I, and we appreciate it.

And here, we, go!

Point Shots

1* In last week’s column we questioned the decision the Minnesota Whitecaps made two weekends ago when they replaced the most decorated goaltender in league history, Amanda Leveille, with rookie Jenna Brenneman for the start of the third period. Brenneman would finish the first game vs. the Buffalo Beauts and start the following day.

(In our defense, we aren’t given access to coaches or players as much as we should be to ask these questions. While I love a good scavenger hunt…)

This weekend we got a little more clarity on the situation when we found out ahead of the Whitecaps’ trip north of the border for a series with the Toronto Six that netminder Julie Friend was on the trip. She was on Minnesota’s roster in their first NWHL season (2018-19), appeared in two games (1-1 record), and has her name on the Isobel Cup.

Friend was on a PTO for the first game in Toronto and ahead of the second game Minnesota announced that she had been signed for the rest of the season. There hasn’t been an official announcement yet and there may not be one, but we have learned that Leveille is nursing an undisclosed injury that currently has no timeline.

There’s no other way to put this, but the Whitecaps have had a rough season thus far. If Leveille is out for an extended period of time, and/or misses the playoffs (the ICF is seven weeks away from today/Feb. 14) how much does that hinder their chances to make it to the championship game for the fourth consecutive season? TBD.

Goaltender Allie Morse (who was Leveille’s backup/partner the past two seasons) has been on the Whitecaps as a practice player this season, and was on the trip to Toronto but not in uniform. So she may be in the mix for playing time perhaps.

1.1* I have no idea if the stats on the PHF website are correct (sorry, I have trust issues) but big ups to Brenneman who turned aside 77 shots in the two games vs. the league’s top team. Over the past two weekends (3 full games + a period) the rookie netminder has fought and battled against an avalanche of shots while showing us why the Whitecaps felt confident enough to select her 24th overall (Rd. 4) in the 2021 NWHL Draft.

She never seemed flustered at all and this past Sunday she went toe-to-toe (or save-for-save I guess) with Toronto’s Elaine Chuli all day. A bounce here or there (Audra Morrison’s shot that rang off the post) and the outcome very easily could have been flipped the other way.

2* Another weekend, another home sweep for the Six. Toronto is now 8-0 at home this season with one series remaining at York Canlan Ice Arena (Mar. 12-13 vs. the Boston Pride). “I just want to give my team a chance to win (every time I’m on the ice). Minnesota made it tough, they were throwing a lot of pucks at the net and made it difficult on us. We won, so that’s all I care about,” said Chuli after giving up a rare (third time this season) two goals in one game on Saturday.

The Six have given up 11 goals in the eight home games and have played with the lead or tied for about 90% of those games (just my guesstimate). One thing teams have found out quickly is that Toronto is lethal in second periods this season - especially on home ice though. I asked Head Coach Mark Joslin after Saturday’s game if there was any secret to his team’s second-period success.

“It was in my pregame speech honestly,” Joslin replied, “we are a second-period team. I’m going to do a rundown tonight when I’m sitting home having a beer, but our second periods have been unbelievable all year. I think we’re averaging three goals per second period, but no,” he added with a chuckle, “there’s no coaching to that. The girls are figuring it out on their own, getting comfortable and going. It’s unreal what they’ve done in the second periods this year.”

I don’t drink beer (wine for me), but I crunched the numbers too on Toronto’s second-period prowess during the 2021-22 season. They have outscored their opponents 25-7 overall in the middle frame, but at home, it’s 20-3. In their 13 games this season they’ve scored 48 goals, tied for the most in the PHF with the Connecticut Whale - who’ve played one more game as of now.

Of the four teams to visit Toronto this season only the Riveters (1) and Whitecaps (2) have managed to score in the second period. The only team to score more than one goal in a second period against the Six is also the only team that has defeated them this season, the Boston Pride.

2*1 In Saturday’s Toronto-Minnesota game the skills of Mikyla Grant-Mentis were on full display. It’s truly remarkable how a player that makes us say - wow did you see that? - just about every weekend isn’t even in the conversation to be a candidate for Team Canada, but that’s a story for another writer, on another day. She scored two goals in the 6-2 triumph, one of them she carried the puck coast-to-coast like buttered toast, carving up the Whitecaps skaters like a samurai sword, and the other she deflected a point shot artfully into the net. Both are remarkable plays, in two distinctly different ways.

“I don’t treat her any different than any other player on the team, I don’t give her any extra love. I’ve actually been pretty tough on her to keep her humble and accountable,” Joslin replied when I asked if she still amazes her at this point of the season. “There’s been the odd time where I’ll pull her aside and give her some tough love, and she has responded incredibly to that. I’m not going to change it, I think she likes it.”

“She amazes me, even in practice she amazes me. The way that she bats pucks out of the air — not only is she explosive when she has the puck on her stick, but I think she leads the league in takeaways as a forward,” he added. “She amazes us all offensively, but she does some things defensively that others may not notice that I definitely notice. Mikyla wasn’t on our penalty kill earlier in the year because I didn’t trust her enough, but now she’s on that unit. So hats off to her for buying in.”

3* Rookie defender Emilie Harley told us in last week’s ATR that the Buffalo Beauts were on a mission for their first home win of the season, and on Saturday they achieved that goal with a 3-2 win over the Metropolitan Riveters. Despite surrendering the first goal of the game Buffalo replied with the tying goal 80 seconds later and eventually jumped out to a 3-1 lead before the Rivs netted a goal midway through the third.

The Beauts currently have the fewest goals this season (30), but as of late they are starting to get production from the offensive playmakers they brought to Buffalo this off-season. Harley, Jenna Suokko, Anjelica Diffendal, Emma Keenan, Kennedy Ganser and Cassidy Vinkle all chipped in goals over the past two weekends.

Perhaps most impressive was how they’ve played without their co-captain and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer Taylor Accursi (personal reasons). It remains to be seen how many more games the Blonde Bomber will miss but as of now, she’s been out for six of the Beauts 13 games.

4* On Sunday, the Beauts were a mere 6:32 from sweeping the Riveters. Then Kendall Cornine took the game into her hands and flipped it completely in a span of three minutes. Had Cornine not scored Buffalo would have jumped ahead of their rivals in the standings. Instead, the Rivs now head into a weekend tussle with Minnesota in a battle for fourth place. As one of the lowest-scoring teams in the PHF, Cornine’s goals were severely needed because oftentimes if their top line doesn’t score the game spirals away from them.

4.1* Prior to the weekend series in Buffalo the Riveters announced that defender Rachael Ade was getting an A on her jersey (it wasn't there this weekend I believe) as one of the team’s alternate captains. Her presence on the blue line has been a welcome addition as the team has tried to rebuild the defense corps on the fly. Knowing Ade a little bit, she’s a great choice for that role. Congrats on the honor Lucky 7!

“Rachael truly loves the game of hockey. She doesn’t just show up to the rink for practices and games and that’s it,” said Riveters Associate Head Coach Kelly Nash, who coached Ade at the University of Vermont. “You can tell she’s thinking and watching the game all the time.”

Ade is a hard-working, selfless player who can quarterback a power-play unit, and is a minutes muncher that the coaching staff can rely on often. Sunday we saw a rarity as Ade took her first penalty of the season in her 12th game.

5* In the aftermath of Sunday’s Beauts-Rivs battle there was a lot of talk about video review. Not once, but twice Buffalo thought they had scored a goal, and both times after video review it was ruled that the goals didn’t count. The Beauts felt like the game was taken away from them, and it's hard to argue with them.

For me, the second disallowed goal was tough to see, not only because it would have been Elena Orlando’s first goal in seven seasons in this league, but also because the player in the net (Vinkle) didn’t interfere at all with Riveters goalie Sonjia Shelly’s ability to stop the puck. Look at the replay below, what do you think?

Hopefully, something like this doesn’t happen in the playoffs.

6* Going back to Toronto, it was great to see Natalie Marcuzzi net her first pro goal on Saturday. Apparently, it was so much fun she decided to score twice in the Six’s 6-2 win. A member of the inaugural team, Marcuzzi has fit in seamlessly with Toronto since she replaced Michela Cava in mid-January and has four points (2g-2a) in four games now.

Marcuzzi has been skating on a line with Brooke Boquist and Shiann Darkangelo and her linemates each had a primary assist on her two tallies. “Both great passes from Brooke and Shi, unbelievable,” she said of the scoring plays. “You have to bury them when they’re that pretty. Overall, I think our line was successful.”

Yah, they were. Boquist finished the game with three assists and added a goal on Sunday. The trio ended the weekend with a total of eight points (3g-5a). “It’s nice to get rewarded. I was hungry, I had some fans in the stands so it was nice to see everyone here to support us and ya gotta give 'em something to watch,” added Marcuzzi with a grin.

7* Her first pro goal really flipped the momentum in the game. Minnesota was up by a goal after one period of play and had a power play early in the second period. But Toronto’s penalty killers were up to the task, and on the next shift Marcuzzi cashed in to tie the game after a brilliant pass from Boquist.

“It was nice to have that momentum from the penalty kill, (and I thought) we did a great job with that today. I was just trying to get the puck on the net - it was a great pass from Brookie, so I had to put that in,” Marcuzzi said.

“I wasn’t paying too much attention to how she passed it to me, I’ll have to go back and look at the replay. But I was just ready in front; I knew I was open, I knew she had the puck and saw me. I just tried my best to do the pass (that she made) justice, so I’m happy that it went in.”

8* On Feb. 9 the PHF announced that the 2022 Isobel Cup Playoffs will take place at the end of March in Florida. While I understand the logistic point of view of having all teams in the same location and also think it's fantastic that the board of governors is willing to foot that bill to get six teams down there, I’m not sure I’m a fan of the move - or the format.

All games will be held at AdventHealth Center Ice near Tampa Bay.

March 25: 3rd place vs. 6th place (4 pm ET), 4th place vs. 5th place (7:30 pm ET).

March 27: 1st place vs. lowest seed (1 pm ET), 2nd place vs. highest seed (4:30 pm ET).

March 28: semifinal winners (9 pm ET)

We’re in Season 7 and other than the inaugural season where each of the three playoff series was a best-of-3, the other seasons have featured single-elimination playoff rounds. This season the top two teams in the standings will automatically qualify for the semifinals and would only have to win two playoff games to win the Cup, while the remaining four teams will have to win three games to claim the prize. The top team could also play one game and be headed home by the end of the day.

9* So what is the point of having a regular season if everyone is qualifying for the postseason? The reward for finishing as high as you can isn’t even having a home crowd behind you / a raucous environment or sleeping in your own bed. It’s having the last change in a game as the designated home team in a neutral location. An advantage? Yes. A huge one? Ehh.

“It doesn’t change our strategy. I’m a fan of the neutral site for the playoffs, I think it's fantastic,” Joslin told TIG. “The biggest thing for us as a team is that we want to end up in first place so we can have ‘home ice’ in the sense that we will have the last line change. That is more important to me than where we are playing venue or location-wise.”

“Before our road games, we add a third practice to our weekly schedule, on the smaller rink. After our last home series with Boston, the remainder of our practices will be on the smaller ice.”

Now, of course, the players (and coaches) love the idea of going to Florida for a weekend. I would too, (if I could go)! Here’s hoping next season with eight teams in the PHF we can get back to having playoff games in home rinks, with home fans (who spend their money to go to regular-season games), and possibly best-of-three series.

My favorite part of the announcement - is that the Isobel Cup Final will be broadcast on ESPN2 (the other playoff games will be on ESPN+). Yeah, streaming is the future, blah blah blah, but its a lot easier to ask a bartender to put ESPN2 on in a bar than it is to find a bar that has/can air PHF games in their establishments on ESPN+. This is two consecutive years that the Cup Final will be on cable tv.

‘Took a whole lotta trying, to get up that hill. Now we up in the big leagues, gettin our turn at bat.’

Maybe I’ll throw a watch party here in New Jersey at a bar for the ICF, and cover that angle.

9.1* Speaking of the playoffs, we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty now and this past weekend’s games affected both the top and bottom of the standings. Toronto continues to position itself to finish atop the standings for a second straight campaign. By virtue of the Six’s sweep of the Whitecaps and the rock ‘em, sock ‘em series between the Beauts and Riveters those three teams are all separated by a grand total of five points.

Minnesota and Metropolitan have a huge series this upcoming weekend at TRIA Rink that could go a long way in determining how the standings shake out in a month. Keep in mind they’ll also square off again in a few weekends in New Jersey.

10* Whitecaps forward Meaghan Pezon (pronounced PEE-ZON) had her three-game point streak (1g-2a) snapped on Sunday in the loss to Toronto. After missing the first eight games this season while she dealt with some personal stuff, her impact has certainly been felt on the lineup over the past six games.

On Monday Pezon was back to work, watching some game film to see how she could improve her craft for the final stretch ahead of the big series vs. the Rivs. “The only reason I go back and watch the film is to see where I can be better. Saturday against the Six I was scored on twice, and I pride myself on defense; so getting scored on twice really bothered me,” Pezon told ATR via text on Monday night.

“I’m just watching to see where I can be better. I was out of the lineup for so long that I feel I need to prove myself again, so I am trying to be better at being an asset for our team,” she added. “I know that my role is to help (Allie) Thunstrom score and I am good at that. Being back in the lineup now, I am just trying to make sure I stay in the lineup.”

The last full season the NWHL had (2019-20), Pezon racked up 21 points (8g-13a) in 24 games, and in last year’s two playoff games in Boston all she did was put up four points (1g-3a). Clearly, she is a valuable player to the Whitecaps and if she starts to get hot as the season winds down, it could be a game-changer for the three-time finalists gunning for a fourth.

It PHFeels Like the PHFirst Time

Welcome to the Federation! Stick taps to all - hopefully, the first of many.

PHFirst Goal: Natalie Marcuzzi (T6)

PHFirst Point: Allison Attea (BUF)

Quote of the Week

“I think this team’s momentum has carried over from last season with the veterans that came back and adding new faces like Leah Marino - who’s a good friend and teammate from RMU - I think those new players have added to what we already had. I think this group is quite special, we all work well together and are friends on and off the ice. It’s really nice to play with these women and to know that you’re a part of a great group that’s trying to achieve a great goal. We’re here in the season trying to build ourselves day by day to be the team that wins the Isobel Cup.” — Toronto forward Natalie Marcuzzi on the chemistry within T6 since she rejoined the team in mid-January.

My 3-Stars of the Week

* Kendall Cornine (MET) - after a three-goal weekend (which included the GWG on Sunday) the third-year pro now is fourth in the PHF in goal scoring (8) and tied for second on the Rivs in points (11 in 12 games). Cornine put the team on her back on Sunday - first tying the game late in the third period, and then scoring the difference-maker with less than four minutes to play in regulation.

** Brooke Boquist (T6) - every week I do these when Toronto plays, I could literally pick from a pool of four-five players. This week let’s give some love to Boquist. She picked up the primary assist on both Six goals that tied the game (1-1, 2-2) on Saturday and added a third helper on the game’s final tally. All she did on Sunday was rip off a season-high seven shots on goal and scored the tying goal five minutes after the Whitecaps took the lead.

*** Jenna Brenneman (MIN) - the rookie netminder finished with a lot of saves (as mentioned earlier, I have trust issues with the league’s site) and oftentimes was under siege this weekend. But she stood tall, and I can’t recall a time where she looked flustered at all. She was put in a tough spot and responded well. Sunday’s game could have easily flipped the other way and been a 2-1 Minnesota win.

Did You Know?

Of all the players who have played the most this season Buffalo’s Autumn MacDougall is the only one who has yet to take a penalty. If I jinx you by writing this I apologize! MacDougall has 11 points (4g-7a) in 13 games this season to lead the Beauts and in 19 career games (7g-7a) she hasn’t been penalized once.