Around the Rink in the PHF: Week 5

Toronto’s dominating at home, and lots of news behind various benches

Welcome back to Around the Rink!

Thanks again to all of my teammates at TIG and everyone who’s been following along; and thank you to all of the players/staff of the six teams for all of your openness, your time, and especially your assists. Even though we only had two PHF games this weekend we have a lot to get to. So let’s do this thing.

And here, we, go!

Point Shots

1* I’ve written a lot about how the vibe around the Connecticut Whale is different this season, and you’ve all seen it with your own two eyes as they sit only three points behind the Toronto Six for first place in the PHF one week before the holiday break. But what are their opponents saying? Here’s what Minnesota Whitecaps star Allie Thunstrom had to say after seeing them up close for the first time in Season 7: “Top to bottom they have a ton of depth and a lot of talent. You saw it tonight, they got scoring from all three of their lines, from all over the ice. They’re dangerous,” said the 2020 co-MVP.

“Not to say that CTW teams in the past haven’t had dangerous players obviously - players like (Emma) Vlasic, (Alyssa) Wohlfeiler, Janine (Weber), (Shannon) Doyle slash Turner…they’ve had really great players - but now they are threatening from everywhere. What you saw today was - they weren’t beautiful goals, but they had individual efforts with someone skating through three players. They have phenomenal shots and are scoring from all over. You can’t leave anybody wide open just because it’s an off-angle shot…they proved that three times today, that they will find that opening. They’re a threatening team, well-coached, disciplined and they have speed.”

1.1* Thunstrom knows all about speed as a former speed skater, and she knows all about streaks like the one she currently is in the midst of in Minnesota. Thunstrom has now played in 50 straight regular-season games - aka every game, the Whitecaps have played since joining the NWHL in 2018. She’s also played in all five of their playoff games. Goaltender Amanda Leveille has been dressed for every game in Whitecaps history and has started 47 of the 50 games.

2* Congrats are in order for Kayla Friesen of the Boston Pride who was recently named as an assistant coach for the UMass Boston women’s hockey team. This is in addition to her serving as the Elev802 on-ice skills coach and the Director of Player Development for the Boston Lady Whalers. The native of Winnipeg seems to be settling in nicely in Massachusetts during her second pro season.

“It’s been awesome, Blanch (Head Coach Danielle Blanchard) is great to work with and learn from and the girls are great to work with,” Friesen told us via text this week. “I didn’t know what to expect jumping into a role like that but I have embraced everything, and been a sponge soaking up all I can.”

“It’s really neat to get to see everything from a different standpoint during games. I’m so used to being a player and now getting to bring what I’ve learned over the years to this program is exciting.”

“Everything that goes into each week from a coaching standpoint has been amazing to learn and understand,” added Friesen. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s all so enjoyable and gives me a whole new level of appreciation for all of the coaches I’ve had growing up.”

3* A handful of players have joined the PHF this season after playing overseas previously. Here’s some insight into how they adjust to the different rink sizes and styles of play from one of those players - Buffalo Beauts forward Amy Budde.

“The biggest transition for me has been going back to the little ice. In Sweden, it was so much bigger but still really physical,” Budde told us. “For me, going from Lake Forest to Sweden was a really big adjustment, but I don’t think the adjustment has been too big coming back here from Sweden.”

4* Unfortunately Budde and her teammates were unable to play this weekend as the weather wreaked havoc on their travel to the Twin Cities. Thankfully everyone is okay, and the PHF made the right call in postponing the pair of games on Friday night.

At least they had fun during it all!

The postponed games will be made up at a later date - which we expect (after examining the schedule) will be Feb. 5-6, right after the All-Star Showcase (Jan. 29). This would mean that Minnesota and Buffalo will play a home-and-home sandwiched around the Showcase. If that is indeed when the games will be rescheduled, for the Whitecaps it would mean that they would play against three of their five opponents this season consecutively - which is not ideal, to say the least. They’ve already finished four consecutive games against Boston to start the season, and their next two weekend series are against Toronto (Dec. 18-19, Jan. 8-9).

5* Last weekend was the first time I was actually home and not at a rink to watch PHF games. So I got my first experience of watching the broadcasts on ESPN+. The video was really clean, the only issues I had were on Saturday when there were ridiculous, gale force winds whipping around in my apartment complex here in New Jersey, so I don’t know if the few issues I had were on my end or theirs.

The replays were quick, which is a big change from previous versions of these games in the past. Sometimes we didn’t even get a replay until a timeout or intermission. I thought the broadcasters were okay, but I also don’t think it’s ideal for them to not actually be at the rink. As beautiful as those red Toronto Six jerseys look in pictures, the black numbers are very tough to see on a tv screen or monitor and that came across a few times.

The games weren’t as thrilling, or end-to-end, as some that we’ve seen so far this season, and there was a lot of talking about stuff not related to what was going on in the rink - which I get has to be done to fill time. Would’ve liked more insights on the players, stat trends, or in-game stats like face-offs, ice-time, etc. Overall for me, it was really enjoyable. Not necessarily easy to find or navigate ESPN+ to find the game on the first try, but by the second day, I knew what I was doing.

6* One thing I noticed immediately on Saturday was that the rink in Toronto was a wee bit bigger than we are used to seeing - they play on Olympic-sized ice. Maybe it was common knowledge and I missed it because I was at games in other rinks. But my first thought was: hmm, that’s a bit of an advantage for them. The Six practice on the bigger ice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while practicing on smaller ice on Wednesdays.

In watching both games this weekend in their entirety - I lost track of how many times Toronto used stretch passes and passes banked off the wall to spring a player into the offensive zone. They had the Riveters spinning like turnstiles in the neutral zone more than two or three times. It wasn’t an anomaly though, as Head Coach Mark Joslin confirmed to me after Saturday’s win.

“We like to use the middle of the ice; we draw, suck people into the middle of the ice, and then use the wall - like we did on the play/goal with Lindsay Eastwood coming out of the box,” said Joslin. “That was an indirect pass off the wall; it worked. It worked to perfection. We have a couple of set plays that we run in practice and it paid off tonight for sure.”

Both of their goals on Saturday were a result of those long, cueball passes off the wall. Clearly, they have been able to use the bigger ice surface to their advantage while perhaps catching their opponents a bit off guard. Toronto is 4-0 at home this season against the Whale and Rivs and their next home series is with Minnesota after the new year.

7* File this one under the category of, if you watch a hockey game, any hockey game, you may see something you’ve never, ever seen before. I’ve covered probably more than a thousand NHL, AHL, NWHL, PHF games combined and I don’t think I have ever seen a 2-on-0 break away from the center-ice line. But that’s what you and I saw in the game on Sunday when Emma Woods and Mikyla Grant-Mentis converted on the rarity.

I also thought it was pretty neat that the two of them did their postgame availability together on zoom. (Those went really well, so thanks to Toronto for hosting them). So when I had my opportunity to ask them about the wild play, we were able to see them react to it in real-time and thought you’d all like to get an idea of how it went.

DR: so, when’s the last time either one of you were on a 2-on-0 like that in a game!

Grant-Mentis: “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a 2-on-0 in my career!”

Woods starts laughing.

Grant-Mentis: “I think we were both shocked when we looked up and there were noooo white jerseys in front of us.”

Woods: “Obviously there's the expectation to score on a 2-on-0 but you try to relax. Buckey gave it to me, and I know she was expecting the puck back.”

Grant-Mentis starts giggling.

Woods: “I think we were both on the same page there which is important in that situation. We scored, that’s all that matters.”

8* Stick taps to Riveters Associate Head Coach Kelly Nash who served as the team’s head coach this weekend in Toronto. After playing parts of three seasons (22 games/11 points) and winning an Isobel Cup (2018) with the Rivs, she made the transition behind the bench this off-season to join Head Coach Ivo Mocek’s staff. With Mocek unavailable due to what he told us was “an unfortunate personal situation”, Nash was tasked with guiding the Riveters during their first road trip of the season. Mocek is expected to be behind the bench in NJ this weekend against Boston.

Being behind the bench is nothing new for Nash though. She’s been an assistant coach for the University of Vermont (2013-17) and Princeton University (2017-19) and was head coach of the NJ Colonials (16u Major, Tier 1) in 2020-21. Having said all of that, we do have to clear something up that was falsely reported by the team (after the game started…should’ve been announced before it) and then on the broadcast.

9* Nash is the second former Riveter to serve behind the bench as an assistant coach - something that former Rivs captain Ashley ’Stretch’ Johnston did last season and also when she was recovering from injury a few years ago under Head Coach Chad Wiseman. And she’s the second acting head coach; in Lake Placid Stretch took over for Mocek when he tested positive for Covid and was pulled off the bench mid-game.

Also, Laura Brennan served multiple games as Connecticut’s bench boss (among many other jobs she did) when Colton Orr was filming Battle of the Blades and was unable to be at games. Just like in CTW’s playoff game this past March. Former Whale defender Cydney Roesler was an assistant coach during the Ryan Equale-era with Connecticut. I believe they were the first two former players to serve as an assistant or head coaches in the NW.

10* Former Buffalo Beaut (and 2017 Isobel Cup champion) Kelley Steadman will be coaching in Tampa Bay next week (Dec. 20-22) at the girls-only Lightning Made Hockey Holiday Camp at Amalie Arena. Talk about a great opportunity for those young kids to learn from one of the best!

By our count, Steadman is at least the third player with ties to the Beauts to work with the younger generation in Tampa, joining current Beaut Taylor Accursi and former Beaut/current Whitecap Sara Bustad.

It PHFeels Like the PHFirst Time

Welcome to the Federation! Hopefully, you were able to get some kind of puck or plaque for your achievement, stick taps - surely it’s the first of many.

PHFirst points: Christine Chao (T6)

Cobra Kai Award of the Week

Awarded to a team or player who shows no mercy

The opening goal of the game on Sunday by Mikyla Grant-Mentis was bananapants crazy. Perhaps one of the best individual efforts that we have seen in these rinks in a long time.

Hard to fault Riveters defender Rachael Ade, who forced MGM to her backhand, and goaltender Brooke Wolejko who looked to be in a good position. Grant-Mentis showed absolutely no mercy against the duo on the absurd goal.

Quote of the Week

“Her versatility is amazing. She’s a leader and has that A on her jersey for a reason. She’s on our first power play, on the penalty kill, and played both F and D today. She got rewarded with the ice-time she received - a goal and an assist in her first game there; I couldn’t be happier for her. I moved her to F because I thought we were a bit tired in Boston. Normally we dress 10 F and 7 D but we went 11 F and 6 D today and I think it paid off for us.” - Toronto Head Coach Mark Joslin on the versatility of Taylor Woods who finished the weekend with three points (1g-2a).

Bold Prediction

Had to double down on this one. Audra Morrison enters this upcoming weekend without a goal or an assist in six games this season. Probably just getting used to the new name on her back or something. The drought ends in one of the games this weekend against Toronto in Minnesota.

If I’m right I’ll do a giveaway for a ‘Morrison 21’ shirsey to one of my followers on Twitter.

My 3-Stars of the Week

* Elaine Chuli (T6) - the Toronto netminder returned after an absence the previous weekend in Boston and only allowed one goal on the 47 shots she faced from the Riveters. Two wins + one shutout = first place in the PHF and Chuli’s headshot plastered all over the goalie leaderboard. She’s the early frontrunner for Goaltender of the Year.

** Mikyla Grant-Mentis (T6) - after being held off the scoresheet for three straight games, MGM took over the game on Sunday with a three-point performance (2g-1a) that also included the ridiculous goals mentioned above and a game-winning goal. For the weekend she finished with 11 shots on goal and was 11-14 on face-offs

*** Brooke Wolejko (MET) - despite being the hard-luck loser in both games this weekend north of the border Wolejko deserves some love. The Rivs netminder has made three straight starts, laying her claim to the no. 1 job, and calmly faced 64 shots over the two games where her teammates only mustered one goal. Hard to fault her on any of the goals she surrendered and let’s not forget the saves she had on breakaways - including turning aside a penalty shot to keep the game 0-1 halfway through regulation.

Did You Know?

The Connecticut Whale signed defender Kati Tabin, a former captain at Quinnipiac, for the rest of the season. Tabin had played four games for the Whale on a PTO, leaving them with six remaining for the rest of the season.

Mikyla Grant-Mentis and Connecticut’s Kennedy Marchment both have 11 points this season - the most in the PHF currently. They both have four goals, and both have seven assists; Marchment has played one more game. They are the only two players to reach double digits in points so far.