The PWHL this week: Goals remain in short supply as Walter Cup playoffs heat up

Goals have been hard to come by in the first season of the PWHL, and things haven’t been any different during the first week of the Walter Cup playoffs.Only 14 goals have been scored after the first five games, and both Montreal-Boston match-ups have needed extra time — including Saturday’s triple-overtime spectacle. Boston leads the best-of-five semifinal series 2-0 and has a chance to eliminate Montreal in Game 3 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET) in front of its home crowd.One reason things have been tight is the goaltending, with the best-of-the-best occupying a limited number of spots in a six-team league.Toronto’s Kristen Campbell had back-to-back shutouts in Games 1 and 2 against Minnesota, followed by Minnesota’s Maddie Rooney recording one of her own in Game 3. Toronto leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is set for Wednesday (8 p.m. ET) in Minnesota.WATCH | Minnesota blanks Toronto, forcing Game 4:PWHL Minnesota shuts down Toronto to force game 4Minnesota gets a franchise first playoff win, defeating Toronto 2-0 Monday night in semi-final PWHL playoff action in Saint Paul, Minnesota.In the Montreal-Boston series, both games have felt like a duel between two of the best goalies on the planet in Montreal’s Ann-Renée Desbiens and Boston’s Aerin Frankel. The latter has made 109 saves, and only given up two goals over two marathon games.Between the goaltending and defensive play, teams need to find different ways to score than they did in the regular season. Minnesota’s first goal in a 2-0 win on Monday, which kept the team alive for another day, came on a point shot with Campbell screened.Soon after, an uncharacteristic puck-handling mistake by Campbell put Minnesota up by two, and Toronto never caught up.”I don’t think that’s going to end up on any highlight reels, but it goes on the board as a goal and that’s awesome,” said Minnesota forward Liz Schepers, who had the primary assist on both goals.”When you’re in a goal drought, you just hear no puck’s a bad puck on net and get bodies, and that’s exactly what we did.”‘We’re in this thing now’The win snapped a seven-game losing streak for Minnesota. But seven losses in a row doesn’t tell the full story of Minnesota’s season. The team yielded the second-fewest goals this year, behind Toronto, and rattled off a five-game win streak before the losing started.Things got difficult after the break for the world championship, a tournament where Minnesota’s best forward, Grace Zumwinkle, didn’t get to play a single game for Team USA, and where several players who did play for the American team returned with a silver medal. Monday’s win could give Minnesota the confidence the players have been missing over the last few weeks. “I don’t think we ever felt our belief in each other dip,” Schepers said.”We knew we’ve been right there in so many close games, and we’re just a couple plays or a couple areas of our game away from those turning into wins. It’s great to get back in the win column tonight in a huge moment, but just a credit to the character of our group and how we never quit on each other. We’re in this thing now.”PWHL Minnesota defender Maggie Flaherty celebrates a goal in Monday’s 2-0 win over Toronto. Toronto leads the best-of-five series 2-1. (Kelly Hagenson/PWHL)On the other side, Toronto has looked dominant at times since the world championship break, especially in the first playoff game against Minnesota.But coming into Game 3, with Minnesota’s players fighting for their playoff lives in front of a home crowd, Toronto put on what head coach Troy Ryan described as the team’s worst performance of the year.”Our passing was off,” he said after Monday’s 2-0 loss.”Our willingness to compete along the walls was off. Our penalty kill was good, so that was something to build off. Just not doing the little things that have made our group successful all year. We’ve just got to be better, without a doubt, in all areas.”The biggest question mark going into Game 4 is the health of top forward Natalie Spooner, Toronto’s leading scorer and a key penalty killer. Spooner needed help going down the tunnel after a hard hit in front of her team’s bench. No penalty was called on the play.Ryan didn’t have an update on Spooner after Monday’s game. He said he hadn’t seen her since the game ended, but that she didn’t look good on the bench.WATCH | Toronto’s Spooner exits Game 3 with lower-body injury:Natalie Spooner leaves game with lower-body injury PWHL Toronto’s Natalie Spooner left the game with a lower-body injury in the third period of game three against Minnesota Monday night.Montreal looks to snatch momentum from BostonBoston has a chance to sweep Montreal after back-to-back road overtime victories that were as fast, physical and close as you could hope for in a playoff hockey series.”Everyone in the stands, I think we gave them what they came here for: the speed, the physicality, the playmaking, the shooting,” Boston head coach Courtney Kessel said after Saturday’s triple-overtime win.No player has played a bigger role in Boston’s success in this series or throughout the regular season, when the team struggled to score goals, than Frankel.”You talk about big players playing big moments and there she is out there winning us a game on Thursday, and then [Saturday] just again coming through for us,” Kessel said about her starting goaltender. “Just a tremendous human being and someone that just wants to battle for her teammates.”WATCH | Boston’s Taylor Wenczkowski scores winner in 3OT:PWHL Boston edges Montreal in Game 2 with Wenczkowski’s winner in 3OTTaylor Wenczkowski’s winning-goal in triple overtime lifts Boston to a 2-1 win over Montreal and is one victory away from playing in the PWHL’s Walter Cup final.Montreal has relied on its stars in the series, with defender Erin Ambrose playing more than 61 minutes in Saturday’s game. Kristin O’Neill, Marie-Philip Poulin, Laura Stacey and Kati Tabin all played over 50 minutes.The team’s fourth line didn’t play at all in Game 1, while the depth forwards and defenders and saw limited usage in Game 2, despite how long the game lasted.”Every decision I make has an impact on the team,” Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie said after Game 1.”If I make a small decision that turns into a puck in the back of the net because our fourth line got caught out against Knight’s line, it’s not the fourth line’s fault. It’s my fault. So I’m not going to put them in that situation.”Meanwhile, players on Boston’s fourth line, Amanda Pelkey and Taylor Wenczkowski, scored both goals in Saturday’s game. A key question going into Game 3 is whether Montreal’s coaching staff will turn back to the stars to play heavy minutes after Saturday’s contest or give depth players a bit more runway.Assuming it’s option one, given the challenge of matching up on the road, Montreal’s coaching staff will be counting on its top players to find a way to solve Frankel.PWHL Montreal takes on Boston in Game 3 of the semifinal series on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET. Boston leads the series 2-0. (Pascal Ratthé/PWHL)Combined, Montreal’s Poulin, Stacey, Tabin and Mikyla Grant-Mentis have thrown a total of 55 shots at Frankel, ranking first through fourth when it comes to shots across the league during the playoffs. (O’Neill, who has two power play goals, sits in sixth place with 11 shots over two games.) Within Montreal, the players and coaches feel like it’s been a lot closer than a 2-0 series deficit would indicate.”Everyone could probably agree that we could be up 2-0 in this series,” Cheverie told The Canadian Press earlier this week. “We’ve played nine-ish periods, and I would say that we dominated seven of them.”We have a really great opportunity to take the momentum back.”

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