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Toronto’s Six-Game Heater Is Punishment For The Haters

Sarah Nurse #20 of Toronto smiles in a break in play with Natalie Spooner #24 against Montreal during the first period of their PWHL hockey game at Scotiabank Arena on February 16, 2024 in Toronto, Canada.
Mark Blinch/Getty Images

Rich lore, fierce rivalries—these are not usually things brand new leagues can offer right from the beginning, but I figured there was one tradition we PWHL fans could get off the ground quickly: making fun of Toronto. That is what hockey is all about, isn't it? Why we love this great game? Laughing at Toronto's misfortunes? And what a start we had. The team didn't score a single goal in the league's inaugural game at home against New York, millions of Canadians tuning in. Think of all those little girls, hopeful noses pressed against the glass, watching their heroes let them down. How sad! The goaltending seemed iffy. So did the offense. They won just two of their first seven games, and only one in regulation. Toronto haters had almost too much material to work with. Lest those struggles be blamed on chemistry, know Toronto shares a general manager, head coach, top defensive pairing, and half a dozen other players with the Canadian national team. They can definitely play hockey together.

Still, there were two problems with the "Make Fun Of Toronto" plan. The first is that PWHL Toronto, as hard as I tried to pray for their downfall, is unfortunately kind of likable. And cool. And charming. Emma Maltais channeled Barbie in her choice of draft day fashion, but favors the violence of Oppenheimer on the ice, always involving herself in a scrum, petite though she is. Longtime defense partners Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast still make a reliably great odd couple, one good for a whopping 28 minutes a game. And the defenders getting the rest of the minutes are easy to root for—like steady Lauriane Rougeau, who randomly showed up Marie-Philip Poulin in a shootout, or dreamy skater Kali Flanagan. Sarah Nurse never has to be told by the crowd to "Shoooooot!" Natalie Spooner has summoned not heretofore seen levels of mom strength lately; she opened scoring for Canada at Worlds last April, three months after giving birth, and now leads the PWHL in goals. Delight in her "Cy Young" stat line through 13 games this season: 10 goals, one assist. We can add Spooner to the ranks of repeat shootout heroes as well:

You may have picked up on the second problem, which is that suddenly the team started to be good. Last night, on the road against Minnesota, Toronto won its sixth straight game, to put themselves just three points back of first-place Montreal in the PWHL standings. Nurse scored a little (bouncing?) bloop goal to win it in overtime, her second of the game. Had Toronto not clownishly given up a game-tying goal in the dying seconds of the third period—nearly RUINING my plans to write this very blog in the process, probably to punish me for being an inveterate HATER—they could have gained two more points on Minnesota, and moved into second place. But they'll settle for being second by points percentage, and seem primed to pass a Minnesota team that's been slumping since top-line center Taylor Heise messed up her shoulder in a USA-Canada Rivalry Series game two weeks ago. (She has since been put on LTIR.)

The fun of a hockey heater is that you can ascribe one to whoever or whatever you like, according to your values: Perhaps the team chemistry is to thank, maybe the forwards are playing with more grit like you suggested they should, or maybe the defensive corps has stepped up, which you were saying they needed to do the whole time. In Toronto's case, it's probably a little of all those factors, and a lot that good goaltending makes everything look better. Special team sample sizes are still bound to be wonky with so few games played, but Toronto boasts an excellent penalty kill, leading the league with 95 percent efficiency. Starter Kristen Campbell, whose .875 save percentage in her first six games had fans rueing her three-year guaranteed deal, has two shutouts in her last six starts, good for a .952 save percentage in that span. “I’m not honestly wishing that anything went differently at the start,” she told reporters last week. “I think that we had that start, obviously it wasn’t ideal, but that’s what has allowed us to thrive now, going through that early.” The haters' good old days are over.

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