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Special Team(s)

PWHL Minnesota erases a 0-2 series deficit, moves on to the PWHL Finals.

PWHL Minnesota celebrates winning the semifinal series, 3-2, over Toronto. (Photo courtesy of PWHL)

They were winless in five games to end the regular season. A shot at the top seed in the playoffs and home-ice advantage evaporated. Special teams numbers were abysmal, and their offense had dried up.

Who believed PWHL Minnesota would make it to the PWHL finals in the inaugural season?

Everyone in the PWHL Minnesota locker room.

“I think our group never lost faith,” said Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield. “I think it’s easy to lose faith when things aren’t going well. But I think, the energy in the room, the energy at practice, was never lost based on the results we had toward the end of the season.”

In a complete turn of events, PWHL Minnesota advanced to the league’s championship round with a 4-1 victory over PWHL Toronto in the deciding game five in front of a sold-out crowd at Coca-Cola Coliseum Friday night in Toronto. No. 4 seed Minnesota erased a two-games-to-none series deficit after losing the first two games on the road before rattling off three-straight wins to complete the upset of top-seeded Toronto.

Minnesota blue liner Lee Stecklein recorded two of her three PWHL Playoffs assists in the series-deciding game in Toronto. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

“Definitely proud of our group and the way we battled back,” said Minnesota defenseman Lee Stecklein. “Not just in this series but in each game with the ebbs and flows. The group didn’t quit. We knew what we needed to do, and we were committed to sticking to that.”

Minnesota moves on to face No. 3 seed Boston, which swept No. 2 seed Montreal behind three overtime victories. The best-of-five PWHL Finals start at 4 p.m. CT Sunday. While Minnesota has won three in a row, Boston has a five-game winning streak overall. Their momentum started on April 27 when Minnesota native Hannah Brandt scored the game-winning goal with 2.7 seconds left in regulation to keep Boston’s playoff hopes alive.

Friday’s Game 5 victory was Minnesota’s first on the road since March 3, snapping a six-game skid away from St. Paul. They also handed Toronto its first loss on home ice since Jan. 17; Toronto was riding an 11-0 streak at home. Minnesota used a pair of power-play goals to help seal the victory.

Special teams have plagued Minnesota all season. They finished the regular season with an 8.2% power play (5-for-61 in 24 games). Their penalty kill was the worst in the league at 67.2%, allowing opponents to score 20 times on the power play. Nine of those 20 goals allowed on the penalty kill came in those last five games of the regular season; twice they allowed an opponent to go 3-for-4 on the power play.

But in Game 5, and in the series, special teams came through for Minnesota. As often happens in the playoffs, they were the difference when it mattered the most. Denisa Krizova’s power-play goal for the 1-0 lead Friday snapped a 0-for-25 stretch with the advantage for Minnesota, dating back to April 18. Minnesota also scored two power-play goals in a game for the first time this season.

Sometimes, it’s just a bounce that goes your way, which happened on that first goal, said forward Kelly Pannek. She said she joked after the game that the team nearly doubled its power-play goal output from the season in one game.

“We got half as many in one game at the right time,” Pannek said. “I think our groups on the power play are very committed to… playing the right way and doing the right things. Keep trusting that the looks are going to produce.

“When you have that positive energy, I think the special teams were a big point of emphasis for us, after the last five games of the regular season.”

Minnesota’s penalty kill kept Toronto off the board in the series, going a perfect 10-for-10.

Taylor Heise scored a power-play goal and empty-netter to help send PWHL Minnesota to the Finals. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Taylor Heise made it 2-for-2 on the power play for Minnesota, giving her team a 2-1 lead at 8:30 of the third period in Game 5 for her first goal since March 13. She added an empty netter for her sixth goal of the season. The offensive production came one game after Minnesota coach Ken Klee praised Heise for her “best game by far” in the playoffs during Game 4.

Now, the rookie and her teammates will play for a championship.

“I think it’s fun to see that we had the belief in ourselves, and I don’t think anyone else did, especially considering the way we ended [our season] and then getting the reverse sweep,” Heise said.

The road to the Finals
So, how did Minnesota get here? It’s been an up-and-down past two months, for starters.

At the end of March, PWHL Minnesota was riding high and about to finish the month on a five-game winning streak. They spent most of the season in first or second place in the league, though standings were usually tight. Year one as a league, and the parity among the six teams was already evident.

Minnesota general manager Natalie Darwitz met with the media before that March 24 game at Xcel Energy Center, ahead of the IIHF World Championship Break. She kept her fingers crossed that all her players would come back from the break healthy.

“Because I think what happens that last month of the season is going to be the most crucial time,” Darwitz said.

Crucial, indeed. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the five-game winning streak was replaced with a five-game skid to end the regular season, culminating in the team barely squeezing into the PWHL playoffs after getting help from other teams on the final day of the regular season. Minnesota had five opportunities to gain a point in the standings during those five games, which would have clinched a playoff berth. They failed to do so.

The PWHL is a league filled with one-goal games and outstanding goaltenders. But there are also some amazing skaters on the ice, too. Minnesota built up a trend where scoring goals became a tough task. They were outscored 19-7 during the five-game losing skid in April, which included four road games.

When Minnesota returned from the international break – a break that all PWHL teams dealt with, sending some players to national teams while other players stayed back and practiced – with a 4-3 loss at Montreal on April 18. Minnesota had a one-goal lead before giving up the tying and winning goals in the final three minutes of regulation. Minnesota wouldn’t score three goals in a game until Game 5 in Toronto.

Minnesota followed in April with a 4-0 loss at Ottawa, the 2-1 loss that Klee called “gut-wrenching” against Boston at home, and then a 4-1 loss at Toronto and 5-2 loss at New York. Minnesota was outscored 9-3 in those final two games, including allowing a season-high five goals to the league’s worst team, New York.

“We didn’t end the season the way we wanted to,” said Minnesota forward and PWHL Rookie of the Year finalist, Grace Zumwinkle, after Game 5. “It’s just a huge testament to our team from first line to fourth line and everyone that’s on our roster.

“I think anyone can contribute on any given night.”

Just get in, then win
No matter how it happened, Minnesota reached the playoffs. Per the league rules, the top seed in the playoffs got to choose its opponent, either No. 3 seed Boston or No. 4 seed Minnesota. Toronto chose Minnesota for the best-of-five semifinals.

PWHL Minnesota bounced back from a rough stretch at the end of the regular season to win three consecutive playoff games. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Toronto grabbed the series lead with back-to-back shutouts by 4-0 and 2-0 margins. Minnesota goaltender Maddie Rooney started all series games except the first, with Nicole Hensley getting that game. Rooney made 92 saves on 94 shots in those four games for a .979 save percentage and only two goals allowed. She also recorded a shutout streak that lasted 173:19 spanning from late in Game 2 to the second period of Game 5.

“I thought Game 2 was the big change for us,” Klee said. “We played the right way, stayed on top of pucks and battled. We had more compete than we’ve had.”

Then, Minnesota returned the favor to Toronto with 2-0 and 1-0 shutout victories at Xcel Energy Center. The second game was a win in double overtime as Minnesota shut out a Toronto team that hadn’t been held off the board since its season opener.

“Obviously, that gives us a lot of confidence,” said Minnesota forward Claire Butorac, who scored the overtime winner with a rebound shot in front on Wednesday. “Coach has been in our ears about just sticking together the whole time.

“And I think we’ve done a really good job of that. Not getting down on each other but just lifting each other up on the ice, off the ice. I think that builds a pretty confident team.”

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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