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Toronto chooses Minnesota as PWHL semifinal foe, Montreal to face Boston

Toronto declaring Minnesota its semifinal opponent in the Professional Women's Hockey League on Monday evening ended the suspense for the three other playoff teams.
Toronto's Olivia Knowles (7) and Minnesota's Taylor Heise (27) battle for the puck during first period PWHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Toronto declaring Minnesota its semifinal opponent in the Professional Women's Hockey League on Monday evening ended the suspense for the three other playoff teams.

Minnesota started preparing for a Tuesday flight to Toronto for the first two games of the best-of-five semifinal Wednesday and Friday at Coca-Cola Coliseum.

"Considering it was about 30 minutes ago, all of us are scrambling to find dog sitters, babysitters, get our passports and figure out what time our flight is in the morning," said Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield on a media conference call.

The PWHL in its first season introduced an unconventional playoff hockey tweak in that the regular-season winner had the choice between the third and fourth seeds for its semifinal opponent.

Toronto had 24 hours after the buzzer in Sunday's 5-2 win over Ottawa, which kept Minnesota in the final four, to announce its decision.

Giving fourth-seeded Minnesota the nod meant No. 2 Montreal will face third seed Boston in the other semifinal starting Thursday at Place Bell in Laval, Que. The higher seeds get home-ice advantage for games one, two, and five in each series.

The semifinal winners advance to the best-of-five Walter Cup. New York and Ottawa finished outside the playoffs in the six-team league.

Toronto (13-4-0-7) clinching first with five days remaining in the regular season gave general manager Gina Kingsbury, head coach Troy Ryan and the players lead time to ponder their upcoming decision.

"The process started a long time ago when we knew the rules and when we clinched first place, we started those discussion already on the hypotheticals of who that may be that we get to choose from," Kingsbury said.

"There's no easy opponent in this league and so we looked at all different angles. We talked to our leadership group, we leaned on our athletes, just what they're feeling and how they feel against all of these opponents that we got to choose from. 

"I looked at analytics and numbers, how we matched up against these teams throughout the season. You want to also look at the more recency of the teams and how they're doing at this time frame of the season. Are they healthy? Are they banged up? Travel came into play. What does that look like? Where do we feel comfortable travelling to?"

Kingsbury gave the players a strong voice in the decision, Ryan said.

"I thought she did a really good job bringing in the leadership group and having those conversations to get a little bit of their feedback," he said. "She took it to the bigger group as well, the athletes, just to get their thoughts on things.

"The list that Gina just talked about, they're all things that were considered. The difficult part is which factors within there carry the most weight."

Montreal (10-3-5-6) ranked second ahead of Boston and Minnesota with identical 8-3-4-9 records. Boston ranked higher in the tiebreaker.

Riding a four-game win streak into the post-season, Toronto had a choice of U.S. clubs headed in opposite directions. Minnesota backed into the playoffs with a five-game losing streak. 

The club hasn't won since the international break for the world championship. Toronto's 5-2 win in regulation time over Ottawa in Sunday's finale not only crushed Ottawa's post-season hopes, but had Minnesota players waiting to see if their season would continue.

"It's a new season. Everyone starts with a clean slate. Every team, every player and we look forward to going into Toronto with that clean slate," Coyne Schofield said

Boston, meanwhile, capped their regular season winning four out of five. 

Toronto went 2-1-0-1 versus Minnesota, including a 4-1 home win May 1 in Minnesota's last game. Toronto was 3-0-0-2 versus Boston, including a 2-1 loss in their last meeting April 18.

"It would have been a mad dash to the laundry room and start packing my bags if they chose us," Boston head coach Courtney Kessel said. 

"That's part of being a professional sport now. Anything can happen. A little twist (Toronto) had 24 hours to make the decision and waited right to that last second that kind of keep the suspense high for everyone."

Montreal was 1-1-1-1 against Boston, which edged Montreal 4-3 on Saturday to close out their regular seasons. Toronto's announcement at 7:30 ET on Monday sprung the other three playoff teams to start their game-planning.

"As the news broke, I was actually driving," Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie said. "That element brings a dynamic that probably doesn't sit well with the teams that are being selected or not selected. 

"I don't think that the league needs any added fire between teams. Every game feels like a Game 7, but it certainly does add fuel to the fire, I'm sure."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2024.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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