Spectacular and Clinical

by | May 31, 2024

Spectacular and Clinical

by | May 31, 2024

Lowell, Mass. – Spectacular.  Clinical.

Rarely are those two words used to describe the same hockey game, but they capture well the final tilt of the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s inaugural season. Last night, PWHL Minnesota bested PWHL Boston 3-0 at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass., to clinch the best-of-five playoff series 3 games to 2 and to earn the right to raise the league’s shiny new hardware, the Walter Cup. It was a story well scripted  for the six-team circuit, which began its 72-game regular season on January 1 and finished it with an exciting month-long playoff tournament.

The event had all the elements of a pageant.

A capacity crowd of more than 6,500 mostly green-clad, sign-wielding, energized fans filed into the rink, located 32 miles to the north of Boston on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. In addition to young families, the principal demographic for most PWHL Boston games this season, were curious adults for whom the final game would have been the first pro women’s hockey they’d ever seen. After-market tickets were selling, one report had it, for between $200 and $2000 apiece. In the arena, there was a brisk trade in PWHL “merch”—T-shirts, mugs, and other collectibles—for those who wanted to take home a piece of league history. All night, the crowd was active, cheering (almost) every hometown team save and shot on goal, and chanting “We Want the Cup!” and “Fran-KEL!” following Boston goalkeeper Aerin Frankel’s saves.

The media showed up, too. According to PWHL communications executive, Paul Krotz, there were “more than 50 credentials” issued to reporters from print, digital, and television local and national outlets, more than the league issued for Game 4 in Saint Paul, Minn., on Sunday afternoon. Credentialed media were so numerous that the university rink’s press box couldn’t handle them all. The game was televised live in Canada and in regional markets in the United States and streamed live online.

And a parade of VIPs elevated the event to a spectacle. Among them were league owner Mark Walter and his wife Ilana Kloss, LA Dodger president and part owner (and PWHL board member) Stan Kasten, league commissioner Jayna Hefford, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey and assorted elected officials, all of them introduced via the rink’s central scoreboard to loud applause. By far the biggest hit was Billie Jean King, the former tennis champion and lauded women’s rights activist who has been the league’s strongest champion since its conception last fall. Generous with her time, King took selfies with a long line of fans during the game and signed autographs and spoke to the crowd after the game.

“Ten months ago, could you ever imagine this happening,” one autograph-seeker asked her after the game.

“I did,” the icon replied with a smile.

Those who expected a continuation of Game 4’s double-overtime fireworks were disappointed. The game itself was a study in hockey efficiency, a defensive clinic.

After an opening eight minutes of fast-paced action, the game became a more stolid affair that Minnesota steadily dominated. Liz Schepers buried a second chance, a back-door stab with 16:46 left in the second period, and Minnesota never looked back.

For the remainder of the game, the PWHL’s westernmost team played a methodical road game: quick shifts, strong positional play in the defensive zone, and always four players “above the puck.” Opportunistic, they controlled the play in the offensive zone, on most rushes gaining entry easily, setting up shots, and corralling rebounds for second chances. Michela Cava scored the team’s second goal on a wraparound effort at the end of a long shift with 11:52 left in the third period, and team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield potted an empty netter in the game’s waning minutes.

The strategy was flawlessly executed. “They’re on top of their game right now,” Minnesota coach Ken Klee, a 16-year NHL veteran defenseman, told one news outlet earlier this week. Minnesota’s forecheck was a wet blanket, and throughout the second and third periods Boston couldn’t break out the puck from their zone.  In the attacking zone, the home team was often “one and done,” and couldn’t sustain any pressure.

One Boston bright spot was Frankel, who repelled 41 of 43 Minnesota shots to keep her team in the game. She has been our backbone,” Boston forward Jamie Lee Rattray said after the game. “I don’t think we would have gotten this far without her.”  At the other end of the ice, Minnesota’s Nicole Hensley quietly did her job, facing only 17 shots all game.

Both Boston and Minnesota were unlikely finalists, finishing third and fourth in the league (both with 35 points) at the close of its regular schedule, 6 points behind Montreal and 12 points behind league-leading Toronto.  Boston surprised Montreal in a three-game sweep, while Minnesota ground out a series victory over Toronto, 3 games to 2. In the final series, Minnesota and Boston split the first two games played in the Tsongas Center, as they did the next two at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul.  In Game 4, a scoreless tie was broken only in a chance-rich double overtime, when officials used video review to cancel a Minnesota goal because of goaltender interference. Minutes later, Boston Alina Müller put paid to the contest with a top-shelf wrister.

For her part, Minnesota star Taylor Heise was awarded the first-ever playoffs MVP, the Ilana Kloss trophy, named after King’s longtime partner, and awarded as part of the spectacular post-game ceremony.

The post-game on-ice spectacle was bright and loud, with lots of victory smiles. But the real star of the championship game was Minnesota’s team defense. It was a clinic.

Andrew Holman teaches sport history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. His books include Hockey: A Global History (with Stephen Hardy, 2018), and “A Hotly Contested Affair”: Hockey in Canada. The National Game in Documents (2020).

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