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Toronto banking on experience with adversity entering PWHL playoffs


TORONTO — A new season has dawned on Toronto's Professional Women's Hockey League team, but it's one without need for a new approach.

Top-seeded Toronto opens the PWHL playoffs against visiting Minnesota on Wednesday at Coca-Cola Coliseum. Toronto went 2-1-0-1 against Minnesota in the regular season, most recently posting a 4-1 win last Wednesday.

"It's a whole new season, we're starting fresh," Toronto head coach Troy Ryan said on Sunday after his team's 5-2 win over Ottawa in the regular-season finale. "The one thing that I think this group has been good at is, they've kind of approached it all year this way.

"We dealt with a lot of adversity at the start of the year, which I think is something that's going to benefit this group. It's benefited us all throughout the year because we knew how terrible it felt early in the year to have the games that we had.

"So I think we've kind of made up for the bad start, so we've played some playoff hockey to get out of that earlier in the year. So I think it's going to bode well for us moving forward."

Finishing first allowed Toronto to select its semifinal opponent between third-place Boston and fourth-place Minnesota, a rule introduced by the PWHL earlier in the season.

Toronto selected Minnesota on Monday night with general manager Gina Kingsbury calling it a "very difficult decision as you can imagine with the parity in the league all year long."

Minnesota head coach Ken Klee said in a Zoom availability Monday that there wasn't added motivation for being selected instead of Boston.

"I don't think so. For me, it's as easy as who has the toughest travel," he said. "We've had the toughest travel the entire year, it's been no secret. Any team, I think, they would agree with that fact.

"If I was them, I would say, 'Who has the furthest to come and has the toughest travel to get here?' Obviously we just played them, so to me, that's who I expected."

Toronto opened the season going 1-0-0-4, far below expectations with a team boasting the talent it does. However, the team rebounded by winning 12 of its next 13 games, including an 11-game win streak.

The team closed the final six-game stretch of the season winning four straight games after back-to-back losses to Ottawa and Boston in the games right before and after the league's international break.

"I think we've earned a lot of confidence," star forward Sarah Nurse said Sunday night. "Being able to play all these teams throughout the season, everybody's different so it's harder to play against certain teams than it is against others — not harder but different.

"So I think we've shown that we can play against every single team in the league and have some success. Going into playoffs, we want to continue to have that confidence, knowing that it's not going to be easy but understanding that we've been here before.

"And I think we're playing playoff hockey right now. We talked about it before the game (Sunday), the switch is on. We don't have to switch the switch on in the playoffs."

Toronto enters the post-season with the league's best penalty kill (91.8 per cent) and fourth in the power play (15.7 per cent). Meanwhile, Minnesota has the worst penalty kill (67.2 per cent) and is fifth on the power play (8.2 per cent).

It's an area Toronto has exploited, going 4-for-10 on the power play against Minnesota, with its one loss in the season series being the only game it didn't score on the advantage. On the other hand, Toronto has held Minnesota scoreless on nine power plays across their four meetings.

Toronto also led the league in goals (69) and fewest goals allowed (50) across the 24-game schedule.

Despite its level of success since its sluggish start, Toronto isn't putting added pressure on itself.

"I think perceived pressure maybe," Ryan said. "I think from our group, there's no extra pressure. We want to win a championship, we're going to do whatever we can to win a championship.

"We expect whoever we play, whether it's in the first round or the second round, we expect to get the team's best. The pressure we put on ourselves is just to do whatever we can to win a championship."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2024.