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Cup Champions

PWHL Minnesota beats Boston, becomes inaugural Walter Cup champions.

PWHL Minnesota won a pair of best-of-five series in the playoffs to earn a championship in the league's inaugural season. (Photo courtesy of PWHL)

Many voices in the PWHL world talk about Kendall Coyne Schofield being the reason for a new iteration of a professional women’s hockey league in 2024. Even her PWHL Minnesota teammate Kelly Pannek jumped into the postgame press conference the other night to give the team captain her figurative flowers.

PWHL Minnesota put a bow on its remarkable playoff run by defeating PWHL Boston 3-0 on Wednesday in the deciding game five of the PWHL Finals. Minnesota became the inaugural Walter Cup Champions, with captain Coyne Schofield hoisting the Cup first after the postgame celebration.

The brand-new league officially got going with training camp starting in mid-November last fall. When Coyne Schofield was asked at that time about what she hoped to accomplish this season, she was very clear.

“Win a championship,” Coyne Schofield said. “That’s the goal of any professional athlete, is to bring home a championship trophy to the city.”

Kendall Coyne Schofield is the first champion to lift the Walter Cup. (Photo courtesy of PWHL)

Accomplishment achieved.

Minnesota dominated Boston in the winner-take-all game five in Boston, outshooting them 44-17 in the game, including 19-3 in the third period. Minnesota’s play was suffocating, with no better example than just before Michela Cava’s goal in the third period for a 2-0 lead. Before she buried the wraparound tally, Minnesota skated around the offensive zone with ease, cycling the puck, passing it around and even changing out players on the fly.

Liz Schepers, who had a solid playoff run with four assists, scored her only goal of the season for a 1-0 lead in the second period. Melissa Channell also recorded three assists in the game. The final Minnesota goal of the game? That was all Coyne Schofield, using her speed to get to a loose puck and bury an empty netter with 2:06 to play in regulation. Talk about a storybook ending.

In goal, Nicole Hensley earned her second shutout of the Finals with 17 saves. In four starts in the final series, she made 87 saves on 89 shots. The goaltending tandem with Hensley and Maddie Rooney shined throughout the season but especially in the playoffs. Rooney was a big reason for their success against Toronto in the semifinals, when she put up similar stats with 92 saves on 94 shots across four starts and two shutout victories.

Minnesota coach Ken Klee rotated between the two netminders all season.

“Maddie was an absolute rock star in the first round, and Nicole got in and she started pitching shutouts,” Klee said.

A long, winding road to the championship
What’s perhaps the most intriguing about Minnesota’s championship season are all of the obstacles it overcame to reach the pinnacle. Starting from the beginning, there were rumors that this new women’s hockey league wouldn’t even place a team in Minnesota.

Even before the historic puck drop on PWHL Minnesota’s season – which was bookended with victories at Tsongas Center on Boston’s home ice – the team made a coaching change on Dec. 27. Charlie Burgraff stepped away from the position, and Klee stepped in about a week before games started. Klee had familiarity with some players, like Coyne Schofield, blue liner Lee Stecklein and Hensley, from his work on the national team, but he still had to find a quick learning curve with his new team.

Lee Stecklein added another championship to her extensive hockey resume. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Minnesota started and ended this season well, winning their first three games in early January. They broke an attendance record (at the time) with more than 13,000 fans at Xcel Energy Center for the home opener, a 3-0 victory over Montreal which included a Grace Zumwinkle hat trick and the first of multiple shutouts this season for Rooney.

They rolled along near the top of the league, going 5-0 in March before the international break. But Minnesota could not buy a victory in the final five regular-season games. As Klee put it, they were “finding ways to lose hockey games,” even though he said they played well. But they weren’t necessarily at their best, with normally crisp passes finding skate blades instead, the offense drying up and special teams stats continuing to spiral.

Minnesota had multiple chances to clinch a playoff spot and didn’t. They needed help on the final day of the regular season to get in as the No. 4 seed. Yes, this championship team almost missed the playoffs in what would have been considered a huge collapse down the stretch.

Top-seeded Toronto waited nearly a full day to choose Minnesota as its opponent in the semifinals. So, Minnesota stayed on the road and played the first two games of the best-of-five series in Toronto, getting shut out 4-0 and 2-0 and facing a must-win game at home for game three. Their losing streak reached seven games.

From the brink of elimination to jubliation
Forget a victory; would Minnesota even score a playoff goal? But the turnaround was about to get started. It took an entire team effort from start to finish, Coyne Schofield said.

“You look at the way that we won,” Coyne Schofield said, after winning the championship. “We were almost out. And as soon as we knew we weren’t out, there were times we got down, but we were never out. And that group in there believed that we could be champions.

“We never lost sight of that.”

Minnesota evened the series with two shutouts behind Rooney, including one in double overtime. Then in game five back in Toronto, Minnesota found their offensive game again, and a 4-1 win sent them to the PWHL Finals to face 3-seed Boston.

“There were moments this year, unfortunately, especially at the end, where we were pretty down,” Stecklein said. “But we were able to pull it together. Just really proud of this group.

“Again, it wouldn’t be possible without Kendall Coyne and her leadership.”

Minnesota grabbed a series lead and thought they won the Cup in game four during double overtime. Sophie Jaques put the puck in the net late in the second OT session, sending the Minnesota team and its fans into a celebratory frenzy. But the celebration was short-lived after a review of the play determined goaltender interference as Taylor Heise slid into the crease and made contact with goalie Aerin Frankel.

A little more than a minute later, Alina Muller scored the winner for Boston, leaving Minnesota and fans stunned.

Taylor Heise was the first overall pick at the PWHL Draft last fall. She added PWHL Playoffs MVP and Walter Cup Champion to her list of accolades in her rookie season. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

“I think they robbed us in game four,” Heise said. “And we all felt that very much so. I think to have the feeling of being a champion taken from you is one of the worst things ever. I can’t say that it’s happened to me before.”

So, once Minnesota actually won the Walter Cup on Wednesday, Hensley shared the team’s celebration graphic on X with her comment: “So nice we won it twice.”

Oh, and about those special teams? Minnesota had a league-worst penalty kill (67.2%), allowing 20 goals against. But their PK was a perfect 19-for-19 in the playoffs. Quite the reversal, indeed.

Minnesota wins the Cup
Once the final buzzer sounded in game five, Minnesota players in their white jerseys with purple lettering rushed on the ice for hugs, smiles and maybe even some happy tears. The Walter Cup was presented in a similar fashion that hockey fans see with the Stanley Cup in the NHL, with music and a walk out to the ice.

Coyne Schofield hoisted the Walter Cup first, pumping it into the air with a giant smile as she skated over to her crowd of teammates. A few minutes later, she choked up during an on-ice broadcast interview, emotions that seemed to spill over to her 10-month-old son, Drew, who burst into tears as he was placed in the Cup during the team photo.

Alternate captain Stecklein was the first to get the Cup hand-off from Coyne Schofield, followed by Pannek, the other alternate captain and a Minnesota native. From there, players took turns skating with the Walter Cup: Hensley, Rooney, Sophia Kunin, Cava, Emma Greco, Channell, Denisa Krizova, Clair DeGeoge, Schepers, Natalie Buchbinder and Sydney Brodt, among others.

The other piece of business was honoring Heise, who was voted the recipient of the Ilana Kloss Playoff MVP award. Heise scored five goals in 10 playoff games after scoring four in 19 regular season games. Heise said “it’s awesome” that the PWHL is the only professional women’s hockey league she knows, coming right out of college.

“Not quite sure where I was going to go,” Heise said. “But this league came at an amazing time. … and I’m very honored to be a part of it.”

This championship marks the second time in five years that a Minnesota women’s professional hockey team won it all in their first season in a league. In 2018-19, the Minnesota Whitecaps won the Isobel Cup in their first year in the National Women’s Hockey League (later renamed PHF). That Whitecaps team included Coyne Schofield, Stecklein and Amanda Leveille.

Minnesota players celebrated a championship twice, this one on home ice after what turned out to be an overturned goal for goaltender interference in game four. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

That championship celebration happened after an overtime goal from Stecklein for a victory against the Buffalo Beauts in front of a sold-out crowd at TRIA Rink in St. Paul. Coyne Schofield, Stecklein and Leveille had another chance to celebrate a first in women’s hockey this week, too.

“There’s something very special about being the first to do something in life,” Coyne Schofield said, following game five. “And for us to be the first Walter Cup champions is something that is extremely special that will be part of this league’s legacy forever.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of teams that have won and that haven’t won. For whatever reason, you remember the teams that win.”

Klee shared a perfect example of that with his players before the final game. Klee received a text message from an old teammate, “not somebody that I talk to very often,” Klee said, with a reminder that 30 years ago to the day, Klee won the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League.

Klee told his Minnesota team ‘this is what you want.’

“It’s not about the trophy or a ring or anything like that,” Klee said. “It’s about having the connection with the people that you’re going to have 30 years from now.”

Photo galleries from the PWHL Playoffs: 

Gallery: PWHL Semifinals Game 3, Toronto vs. Minnesota
Gallery: PWHL Finals Game 3, Boston vs. Minnesota
Gallery: PWHL Finals Game 4, Boston vs. Minnesota

Heather's love for watching hockey started when the Minnesota Wild came to town in 2000. Before that, she caught a few Minnesota Moose games as a youngster, and more recently she's kept up with the Austin Bruins and Fargo Force. She's a writer, freelance journalist and blogger who previously worked as a news reporter in Austin and Fergus Falls, Minn. She enjoys watching sports and closely follows the Wild, Minnesota Twins, IndyCar Series, tennis and prep sports. Heather keeps up her sports blog Thoughts from the Stands. You can follow her on Twitter/X @hlrule or Instagram @hlrule.

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