PWHL Montreal didn’t look like the skilled, offensive team many were expecting to see in its first pre-season game.
The team came out flat against a faster New York squad on Monday, failing to score a regulation goal in the loss.
Montreal finished with one win in three pre-season games in Utica, N.Y., this week, completing its exhibition schedule with a 4-3 loss to Minnesota on Thursday. But progress was the key word among Montreal’s leadership, as the team prepares for the games that count in the standings in January.
“We’ve learned a lot as a group and we’re happy with the progression that we’ve seen over the week,” head coach Kori Cheverie said. “Our D core definitely started moving pucks a little bit quicker and getting it into the forwards’ hands.”
Together in training camp for less than a month, and with many players who have never played together before, the team is still building chemistry on the ice.
“Finding lanes for people, knowing where people’s tendencies are, where they like to be on the ice, where they like the puck on one timers,” Stacey said. “Those are all little things that all of us don’t really know yet about our teammates.”
Developing chemistry with linemates
That includes the line of Tereza Vanišová, Marie-Philip Poulin and Maureen Murphy, none of whom had ever played together before training camp began last month. The three were paired together throughout all three pre-season games, and still seem to be figuring each other out.
Both Vanišová and Poulin had goals in Thursday’s loss.
“It’s going to take time,” Poulin said about building chemistry with her new linemates, who she described as skilled.
“I think for us we need to talk, communicate a lot. But there is potential. I’m very excited to see them grow and for us to play together.”
Passe précise = tir précis <br><br>Dubois 🤝 Poulin <a href=”https://t.co/UJ5Cb53ONR”>pic.twitter.com/UJ5Cb53ONR</a>
It’s a challenge every team in the league is facing after building their rosters from scratch via a draft in September and free agency.
Players have been getting to know each other in training camps since mid-November, but this week in Utica was the first chance to play with their new teammates in a game environment.
It’s one of the unusual quirks of starting a league from scratch. Teams are starting from zero with players learning new systems, meeting new people and in many cases, learning their way around new cities.
It means that what each team showed on the ice in pre-season, after less than a month together, may be quite different than a team looks two months from now.
Final cuts on the horizon
Minnesota left Utica with three wins in three games, two of which required them to mount a comeback after slow starts.
That sense of no-quit is one of the things head coach Charlie Burggraf said he learned about his team this week.
“(We were) kind of tired of playing against ourselves in practice,” he said. “So this is so valuable to see, against good teams, where we are and where we’re not.”
The team also lost three players to injury on the trip.
Minnesota GM Natalie Darwitz said forward Sydney Brodt is likely to be out long term with a lower body injury, while forward Susanna Tapani is in concussion protocol after going into the net hard against Toronto. Forward Grace Zumwinkle also appeared to injure her shoulder against Toronto, and was flown back to Minnesota on Wednesday for evaluation.
That left Minnesota with 11 forwards to play against Montreal on Thursday, with forward Kendall Coyne Schofield not on the trip to Utica. She’s aiming to return for the team’s first game in January after giving birth to a son in July.
The next date circled on the calendar for teams is Dec. 11, which is when they have to finalize their rosters. Those must include 23 players on contract and two reserve players.
Teams all came into Utica with 27 players each left in camp, so they’ll need to make quick decisions on who they’d like to keep around. The league’s waiver period opens Friday and runs through the weekend.
For Minnesota, Darwitz is anticipating only “one or two” cuts, given the team’s injury situation.
“It’s still going to be tough,” she said.
Toronto loses to New York
Toronto dropped its final pre-season contest to New York on Thursday, giving the team a 1-2 exhibition record.
New York forward Emma Woods scored a hat trick in the win.
“It’s a gutsy win and definitely a team win,” she said of her team’s performance.
As for Toronto, that team has 16 players under contract, meaning GM Gina Kingsbury needs to sign at least seven more to meet the 23-player minimum. In theory, there are 11 players competing for those seven jobs.
But Kingsbury said everyone on the roster is up for evaluation, even if they’ve signed a contract. The collective bargaining agreement says teams can terminate a player’s one-year contract before the end of its term “because of the quality of the player’s on-ice performance on or prior to the roster freeze date,” with some exceptions, such as if the player is injured.
“Even if you sign someone, that doesn’t mean they’re safe necessarily,” Kingsbury said.
“I think there’s always ways. You’re pro now. You can trade an athlete, you can release an athlete, you can pick up another athlete on waivers. There can be movement so we have to always be evaluating the entirety of the group and not just those that are unsigned.”
Of note, Toronto still has four goaltenders on its training camp roster, but only Kristen Campbell and Erica Howe, the team’s number one and two, saw playing time in Utica.
Both have different styles and seeing the games this week will help them decide who is the best fit, on top of adding in what each player brings off the ice, Kingsbury said.
“I know it’s a little bit unorthodox, not putting them in the net,” she said.
“But we felt with the short window here prior to the season starting, the fact that there hasn’t been a whole lot of games or meaningful games in the last four years for our athletes, it was important that we gave the net to our number one and our number two, and give them some experience and some confidence moving into the season.”
Toronto and New York will face off again on Jan. 1 in the PWHL’s first regular season game.
Ottawa drops third pre-season game to Boston
Ottawa didn’t log a win during its pre-season schedule. But the team, absent many of its top players, kept up with Boston’s loaded lineup for a good portion of Thursday’s game.
Ottawa GM Mike Hirshfeld was happy with his team’s compete level, even if it didn’t translate into a pre-season win.
The team has six jobs up for grabs among 10 free agent invites left in camp. With players like Brianne Jenner, Emily Clark and Ashton Bell sitting in the stands on Thursday, Hirshfeld and head coach Carla MacLeod gave lots of opportunity to players on the bubble.
“I think tonight would have answered some of the last questions that we had,” Hirshfeld said after Thursday’s game.