TIG Roundtable: PWHL Minnesota at PWHL Toronto

The first- and fourth-seeded squads face off in the inaugural PWHL playoffs, and here's what staff think will happen.

TIG Roundtable: PWHL Minnesota at PWHL Toronto
Credit: PWHL

In a lot of ways, fourth-seeded Minnesota has luck on their side with being here on the other side of the regular season right now. On the other hand, it doesn't seem like any of those ways are the way they might need to make this matchup with first-seed Toronto last more than three games.

After an unlikely hot start where they won four of their first five games, Minnesota has gone colder than St. Paul in the middle of February. Their offense has lost its golden touch it had with Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Heise, and their special teams, particularly the PK, have been ... struggling, to say the least. As a result, Minny hasn't won a single game in April or May, and they ended up tripping over their own feet into the playoffs. In fact, the only team that flubbed more is the one that could have made it over them at any point – and didn't – in Ottawa.

So what can we expect from a matchup like this? Well, maybe not the expected, according to some of our staff. Let's hear it:

Who wins? How many games will it take?

Angelica Rodriguez: I think Toronto takes this one in four. Minnesota just doesn't have any momentum, and I think the one they do end up winning will be a low-scoring affair. 

Mike Murphy: Toronto in four. Minnesota has abysmal special teams and I think Toronto is the better team at even strength. I think Minnesota will take at least one game here, but I don’t like their chances of pulling off the upset. 

Maya: Toronto in four. I think Minnesota will take one game at home but as everyone else has said, they don’t have any momentum and their scoring isn’t enough to outdo the defense and goaltending that Toronto has. 

J Gray: Toronto has scored 19 goals in their last five games. Minnesota has scored seven goals in their last five games. Unless Minnesota improves drastically (*cough* Abby Boreen *cough*), I'll say Toronto in three. 

Lydia Murray: Toronto in four. To reiterate what everyone else has said: Minnesota has zero momentum right now. They lost all five of their post-break games in regulation, and it feels unlikely they snap out of it enough to pull off the upset. That said, I think they grab at least one here, even if goaltender Nicole Hensley has to steal it. It may even be Game 1 because while it’s an incredibly tight turnaround, being chosen as an opponent has to be a funky feeling, and it could wake them up.

Emma Sullivan: Toronto in four seems to be a popular answer and I’m gonna continue it. They’ve been so dominant over the last two months, and while I like Minnesota’s goaltending, the lack of offense really gives me pause. I think they’ll get one win at home in St. Paul but it’ll be Toronto the rest of the way. 

Geremy: Toronto in three. Minnesota has great defensive structure, and Hensley has been ridiculously consistent all season. Minnesota has had offensive struggles since their hot start, and it definitely didn’t get better after the World Championships. Natalie Spooner and Sarah Nurse are the league’s best forwards, they’re going to score, and it doesn’t look like Minnesota has the ability to punch back.

Name an X-Factor for each team.

Angelica Rodriguez: For Toronto, I think some of their most impactful players have been those like Hannah Miller — players who can add energy, play with an edge, and create chaos in front of an opposing goalie. Emma Maltais is a good example of this too. The blend of skill and peskiness is excellent, and I think that can make a difference for Toronto where it counts.

Minnesota, meanwhile, needs to galvanize its offense, and that might have to start with the blue line — players like Sophie Jaques and Lee Stecklein jumping up and moving the puck up quickly.

Mike Murphy: Zumwinkle’s ability to beat defenders one-on-one and the speed and craftiness of Emma Maltais for Toronto. Zumwinkle got plenty of attention for her goal-scoring this year, and for the quality of her play when Heise went down, but I feel like Maltais is somewhat overlooked. She’s going to have a great career in the PWHL and truly had a fantastic rookie season.

Maya Smith: For Toronto, Nurse. She has found her step at the end of this season and she will carry that momentum into the playoffs. She can create chances, she’s a great two-way player and she brings energy.

For Minnesota, I think Stecklein will help support offensively and hopefully create some stability for their special teams. 

J Gray: I'll take the low-hanging fruit and say that Spooner will be the X-factor for Toronto. Right now, she looks like the best player in this league. I don't think she's going to slow down in the playoffs.

For Minnesota, if the team signs Boreen to the one 10-day SPA she's allowed in the playoffs, she could be the spark that this team needs to spark an upset.

Lydia Murray: For Toronto, I’ll go with Kristen Campbell. She was a huge part of the team’s 11-game win streak and overall turnaround, but her shaky play was also a big factor in the team’s rocky start. It’s unlikely, but if she returns to her January play at any point, Toronto will be in trouble.

As for Minnesota, I’ll go with Lee Stecklein. She’s Minnesota’s most experienced defender by a long shot, and they need her to be at her best in this series. If they’re going to have any chance in this series, they need to slow Toronto’s offense (especially Spooner) down and fix their abysmal special teams (especially that PK), and Stecklein needs to be a big part of that.

Emma Sullivan: For Toronto I’m gonna go somewhat off the board and say Renata Fast. Minnesota’s offense has been stagnant lately, and I think Toronto’s defense is going to capitalize on that, especially Fast. If she’s able to make Campbell’s life easier, it’ll help Toronto in this series and potentially in the final as well. And for Minnesota I’m gonna say Heise. The forward has just two points since the international break, one of the biggest causes of Minnesota’s offensive pitfalls. She is a championship producer, though, and I’d expect her to really show up in this series to get back into form. 

Geremy: The X-factor for Toronto is Hannah Miller. With teams so evenly matched, you need depth scoring, or at least one line that can score to help win a series. Miller finished the season with seven goals (11th in the PWHL) and 10th in primary points/60. You might be able to shut down or slow down Nurse/Spooner but that’s going to leave Miller opportunities away from the best.

The X-factor for Minnesota is Sophie Jaques. They need her to reach that Defender of the Year level of potential she has and be a big factor in this series. Offense comes from the back end, and it’s going to be up to Jaques to create that offense. 


Who will be the series MVP?

Angelica Rodriguez: Although I don't think her team will win, I can see Hensley putting up a hell of a performance in net for Minnesota to keep these games as tight as possible. 

Mike Murphy: I have to go with Spooner after she scored 20 goals in 24 regular season games. Spooner may not be Toronto’s captain, but she brings a mountain of poise and experience to her team for their Walter Cup run. When Toronto needs a big goal, we’ll all be looking to Spooner (and Nurse).

Maya Smith: It’s gotta be Spooner. If it’s not, I think Toronto will be in trouble. 

J Gray: I'll go with one of the Golden Gophers girls for the series MVP. One of Heise, Zumwinkle, or Boreen, or a combination of the above, will make Minnesota look competitive in this series.

Lydia Murray: I’m going to go with Hensley. She’s one of the best goaltenders in the world and I expect her to show that in this series. She won’t let Minnesota go away too quietly.

Emma Sullivan: I’ll say Nurse. She’s riding a four game point streak heading into the playoffs and has six goals in that time frame to boot. If she rides that high into the postseason, she should be borderline unbeatable.

Geremy: Spooner is just too easy of a pick and too tough of a player for teams to stop. She has the magic touch, and until she doesn’t I just don’t see how you bet against her. 


What would make the higher-seeded team lose?

Angelica Rodriguez: If they let anything throw them off script regarding the way they've played over these past 10 or 11 games. Simple as that. They need to keep the pace of play theirs, they need to keep the defense up to par, they need to give Spooner as much ice as possible. Oh, and they need to keep working on this power play. 

Mike Murphy: Given how important momentum and emotions are in the playoffs, I’ll go with a Game One loss for PWHL Toronto on home ice and Hensley stealing the series. Hensley is a fantastic goalie with a ton of big-game experience, and she has it in her to steal a game in this series — I’m just not sure she can steal two, let alone three. If Minnesota can put their regular season woes behind them, this could be a fantastic series.

Maya Smith: I will never blame it all on the goaltending ... BUT, if Campbell has a couple of shaky games, I think the team will lose some confidence. She was a huge part of the win streak that helped them get back on track this season. I think Minnesota would need to take both games at home to have a chance, since they aren’t super strong on the road and don’t have home ice advantage. 

J Gray: At one point this season, Minnesota was the best team in the league. Their play down the stretch had them nearly fall out of the playoffs, but they made it in and now they have something akin to a fresh start. If they can get clicking offensively the way they were a few months ago, they'll have a fighting chance.

Lydia Murray: The only way Minnesota stands a chance is if their offense gets going again. Minnesota scores a measly seven goals in the five post-Worlds games, which is not going to get you very far. Hensley can steal at least one game that her team doesn’t deserve to win, but you need to score goals to win and she can’t do that (although if she did that would be fun). They’ve got to find a way to start putting pucks in the net again, or it’s going to be a short series.

Emma Sullivan: There’s always a bit of fear looking at Minnesota’s offense on paper, regardless of how they’ve performed over the last month. I think the lack of production has caused some frustration recently, but now that they’re starting in the playoffs I think they have a real shot to bounce back. Campbell was shaky to start the season, and I think Minnesota knows how to expose that. It’ll come down to how well Toronto can shut them down, but if anything there’s a way Minnesota overwhelms them for sure. 

Geremy: At the end of the day these are pretty even rosters, so unfortunately the answer is a simple one: if more things go the way of Minnesota they’ll win. Score more goals than the other team. Hope a few of your players really embrace the playoffs and find another gear. Even if Minnesota gets out of this scoring slump they’ll need to keep up with Toronto which has been difficult for teams. If you shut down or contain Spooner and Nurse, victory becomes a lot more attainable.