PWHL playoff preview: Toronto vs. Minnesota, Montreal vs. Boston

The inaugural PWHL regular season is over and the playoffs are almost here.

PWHL Toronto officially selected Minnesota as its first-round opponent on Monday night. As the No. 1 seed, Toronto earned the right to select its first opponent from the third- and fourth-place finishers. That decision means Montreal, which finished second, will face No. 3 Boston in the other playoff series set to begin later this week.

Toronto and Minnesota will kick off the postseason on Wednesday in Toronto at Coca-Cola Coliseum, home of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. The Montreal-Boston series will start on Thursday in Montreal at Place Bell, home of the Laval Rocket. Each series will be a best-of-five.

Before the puck drops on the postseason, The Athletic has a comprehensive preview of each series.

No. 1 Toronto versus No. 4 Minnesota 

The odds

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It looks like Toronto picked its semifinal opponent well, with a 64 percent chance of getting by Minnesota. The numbers — provided by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn — are based on the team’s goal differential this year and their margin of victory against specific opponents. So, Toronto would get more credit for beating Montreal 3-0 than New York 6-2, for example.

The conclusion: Toronto should be able to take care of business. The team has the most potent offense in the league (69), the fewest goals against (50) and arguably the strongest mix of stars who can contribute at both ends of the ice to go with elite goaltending. That doesn’t make this an unwinnable series for Minnesota. But the team will need to get back on track quickly after a five-game losing streak put into question whether the team would even make the playoffs.

In the regular season, Toronto beat Minnesota three times and only lost to them once — on Jan. 10, when the team was amid a 1-4 start.

The rosters

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Lines are from the last game each team played and could change in the postseason

The big question

Which version of Minnesota is going to show up?

In January, it would’ve been hard to believe that Minnesota would only make the playoffs thanks to the out-of-town scoreboard. Minnesota was the class of the league to start the season, going undefeated in regulation for their first five games and collecting points in nine of their first 11 games. Minnesota had no more than three losses in a row through the middle of the season and won five straight games heading into the world championship break.

After that, Minnesota lost five straight games — and five straight opportunities to clinch a playoff spot, including four chances where it only needed one point to do so.

In those five games, Minnesota struggled on both sides of the ice, getting outscored 19-7 and killed on special teams. The team went 1-for-15 on the power play and only 5-for-14 on the penalty kill, allowing nine goals against. Special teams haven’t been great all year, which doesn’t exactly offer a silver lining. On the season, Minnesota’s power play is 8.2 percent — only Boston’s 7.5 percent is worse — and the penalty kill is a league-worst 67.2 percent.

Offensively, Minnesota has a better shot at returning to form. In the first 19 games of the season, Minnesota outscored teams 47-35.

First 19 games Final 5 games

Goals scored



GF average



Goals against



GA average



Meaning in the last five games, Minnesota averaged one goal less per game than it did in the first 19 games of the season and allowed double the goals against per game. Only five players scored during the stretch, and most of Minnesota’s star players struggled to produce offensively.

Kendall Coyne Schofield and Taylor Heise had two assists each. Grace Zumwinkle, Michela Cava and Sophie Jaques tallied three points. Lee Stecklein had zero points, while only Kelly Pannek (two goals and four points) was close to a point-per-game player.

Goalies Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney struggled, too. Hensley went from one of the top teams in the league to posting a .869 save percentage over three starts, while Rooney was a solid No. 2 goalie who posted a .881 save percentage in her last two starts.

Of course, five games is a small sample size, and we have 19 games that told us Minnesota was a force. As Coyne Schofield said on Monday, “All 24 games matter … not just the last five.”

The X-factor

Taylor Heise’s production

At her best, Heise has shown she is one of the most dynamic and exciting young players in the world. She scored two of the best goals we’ve seen all season against Toronto — but that was back in January, where the bulk of her production came from this season.

In the first month of her PWHL career, Heise scored three goals and six points in seven games. Since then, she’s scored one goal and seven points in 12 games. She missed time due to injury in February and played at women’s worlds, so there’s been a lot thrown at the rookie.

Before the international break, the Heise, Cava and Coyne Schofield line was one of the best in the league — with a combined five goals and 14 points in five straight wins in April. The trio cooled off during the losing streak — only one goal and seven points combined — but will be critical if Minnesota wants to match up against Toronto’s top six.

Individually, Heise might be the most offensively gifted player in the series, with the kind of hands and vision to beat just about anybody. If she can find her groove again, the series might be closer than we think.

The key matchup

Natalie Spooner vs. Lee Stecklein

One seems like a lock to win the first-ever PWHL MVP award and the other could wind up a finalist as the league’s best defender. It’s probably safe to assume Stecklein will play head-to-head against Spooner a lot in the series.

Stecklein is one of the best defensive defenders in the women’s game with a long reach, excellent gap control and a real disruptive quality to her game in the D-zone. She plays around 27 minutes per game and is a go-to shutdown player for coach Ken Klee.

Spooner is going to be a tough test for Stecklein, though. She has been for every team this season, and nobody has really figured out how to deal with her yet. Spooner’s 20 goals are almost double that of the next highest-scoring player — her Toronto teammate Sarah Nurse and Minnesota’s Zumwinkle, each with 11 goals. She has scored in all situations for Toronto — if you take out her seven power-play goals, Spooner would still lead the league in scoring — and at the most critical moments in games. Nobody in the league scored more game-winning goals (5), game-opening goals (5) or insurance goals (4) than Spooner this season. Not to mention she locked up the regular-season points and goals awards.

Spooner is elite at getting to the net front and providing a screen, tipping in shots from the point and winning puck battles down low. But if you give her too much space in the slot, she can also score from a distance. It will take a team effort to shut down Spooner, but Stecklein will see her the most as Minnesota’s most staunch defender.

No. 2 Montreal versus No. 3 Boston

The odds

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This series is expected to be closer than Toronto-Minnesota and has a good chance at going the distance. There’s a lot to like about a Montreal-Boston matchup, starting with two of the biggest names in women’s hockey in Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight — former CWHL Montreal teammates — going head-to-head. Poulin has been the more productive player (23 points) than Knight (11 points) this season, but both players tend to come up big when it matters, and this should be no exception.

Two No. 1 goalies for club and country in Ann-Renée Desbiens and Aerin Frankel will also face each other. Both have backstopped their national teams to a women’s world championship in the last two years — Desbiens in 2024 and Frankel in 2023 — which gives us a fun goalie battle.

Montreal has been the better team throughout the season, but Boston finally appears to be clicking after a largely disappointing season. A five-game win streak, including a dramatic 4-3 win against Montreal, got Boston into the playoffs. While the odds favor Montreal, this should be an entertaining and physical series.

The rosters

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Lines are from the last game each team played and could change in the postseason

The big question

Does Marie-Philip Poulin have enough around her?

Realistically, Montreal was always going to be a contender with Poulin on its roster. She’s the best player in the world — that’s just how this works.

But Montreal’s depth is likely going to be tested in the postseason.

Poulin paced the offense with 10 goals and 23 points in 21 games this season. Laura Stacey probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for how good she’s been this season, matching Poulin’s 10 goals. Erin Ambrose has been a driver from the offensive blue line at even strength and the power play, while rookies Maureen Murphy and Claire Dalton have provided valuable secondary scoring.

Still, only four Montreal skaters — Poulin, Stacey, Ambrose and Murphy — hit double-digit points, the fewest in the league. Only Poulin and Stacey scored more than five goals. Dalton and Kristin O’Neill weren’t far from double digits, and O’Neill provides value off the scoresheet, so it’s not that she’s playing poorly — it’s just that, outside Poulin and her line, offense can be hard to come by.

Now, there have been a lot of injuries this season; only three forwards played a full 24-game season in Montreal. Kennedy Marchment and Ann-Sophie Bettez, who were expected to be useful top-nine forwards, are on LTIR. Tereza Vanišova, a top-six winger, was traded for blue-line help. And Mélodie Daoust is not available full-time. So it’s really a credit to Montreal — and coach Kori Cheverie — that they locked up the No. 2 spot with so much adversity in their first PWHL season.

Montreal’s attack has looked more balanced of late. In the last five games, 10 different players contributed to 16 goals. Poulin, O’Neill and Stacey — a top-line trio for Cheverie — combined for exactly half of those goals, but Montreal got important contributions from middle-six players like Mikyla Grant-Mentis, Murphy and Sarah Bujold — who missed Montreal’s last three games with injury — and depth defenders like Catherine Daoust.

Boston is a deep team on paper but hasn’t exactly played up to the sum of its parts this season. No players have more than six goals, while seven have hit double-digit points. But Boston’s top-six has been clicking down the stretch, with Alina Müller (the team’s top scorer) and Knight producing on their own lines, giving Boston a 1-2 punch that Montreal hasn’t had consistently this season. Lexie Adzija, acquired via trade with Ottawa, adds a possible third layer of offense for Boston.

Montreal might be a tad top-heavy and that’s OK, as long as the secondary scoring comes when it matters most and if Boston’s top-six finds a way to neutralize the Poulin, Stacey, O’Neill combo. Beyond that, a shorter five-game series likely benefits a top-heavy team like Montreal because it allows Poulin — or Stacey — to carry any given game and, in turn, sway the series.

Think of it this way: If Poulin steals just one game for Montreal, they’re already 33 percent of the way to advancing.

The X-factor

Mélodie Daoust’s availability

As a member of Montreal’s reserve list, Daoust is available to sign one more 10-day contract in the playoffs. Cheverie would not disclose if and when the team might activate Daoust in the playoffs, but if she does play, Daoust would be a big boost to Montreal’s offense.

When Daoust has been in the lineup, she’s been a near-point-per-game player with three goals and five points in six games. And she gives Cheverie more options up and down her lineup. Daoust can play as a middle-six forward, away from Poulin, to give Montreal two scoring lines. Or, she can play beside Poulin if Cheverie wants to break up the top line and spread the wealth with Stacey and O’Neill. Daoust has shown over her career that she can be a gamer, scoring huge goals on the biggest stages women’s hockey has to offer. Regardless of where she’s put in the lineup, it’s hard to imagine Daoust not making an impact.

Would Montreal activate Daoust for the start of this series and potentially move on to the final without her? Or hope they get enough offense and activate her for the final 10 days of the season? All that remains to be seen.

The key matchup

Megan Keller vs. Erin Ambrose

There’s a lot to like about the playoff matchups in this series, whether it’s Poulin versus Knight or former Northeastern teammates Murphy versus Müller. But on the back end, it’s a matchup between two elite defenders in Ambrose and Keller.

Ambrose could very well win the PWHL’s Defender of the Year award after doing just about everything for Montreal. She averages more than 26 minutes per game, plays in all situations, and has been excellent down the stretch with eight points in her last five games. Her defensive play has been solid, especially given her workload and difficult matchups.

Meanwhile, Keller was one of Boston’s foundational signings and is second on the team in scoring (15). She eats minutes in all situations — around 25 per game — and is critical to Boston’s breakout. Boston’s blue line is deeper than Montreal’s, with some more defensive-minded players like Kaleigh Fratkin to free up Keller to go to work in the offensive zone.

Ambrose and Keller are second and third in scoring among defenders, and both have the ability to lead their teams offensively. If Boston can get meaningful contributions on either side of the puck — the Fratkin and Jessica Digirolamo pair has been solid — that blue-line depth could be a real test for Montreal.

(Photo of Natalie Spooner skating with the puck ahead of Lee Stecklein: Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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