The puck stops here with elite goaltending dominating the first half of the PWHL season

U.S. national team member Nicole Hensley couldn’t contain her enthusiasm when the topic of conversation shifted to how stingy the goaltending has been through the first half of the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s inaugural season.

“We love that!” the Minnesota goalie exclaimed, perhaps speaking for herself and her counterparts around the six-team league.

“It’s been a lot of fun just to watch what everyone can do,” Hensley said. “We knew coming in it was a very talented pool, but yeah, it’s been a lot of fun to chat with everyone and be like `Oh, you had this save the other night.′”

They certainly have plenty to crow about. Of the 39 games played entering this weekend, nine have been decided by 2-1 scores, with 29 featuring a combined five or fewer goals. And the premium on making saves is reflected in 23 outings decided by one goal, with 14 determined after regulation.

More notable in highlighting the depth of the league’s goaltending for Hensley is how less familiar names have proved they belong, including the likes of New York’s Corinne Schroeder and Montreal backup Elaine Chuli.

“It’s been fun to watch and especially to see someone shine who maybe wasn’t in the direct spotlight coming in,” Hensley said. “I think this proves why we needed this professional league because there’s so much talent out there outside of who people know are on the national teams.”

The U.S. national team trio of Hensley (5-3-1), Boston’s Aerin Frankel (4-2-2) and Minnesota backup Maddie Rooney (2-1-2) are among five goalies with a sub-2.0 goals-against average.

The list, however, is headed by two Canadians with minimal national team experience in Chuli, who has allowed five goals in her 4-0 start, and Schroeder (5-2), who ranks second with a 1.71 GAA and a sterling .949 save percentage.

The 24-year-old Schroeder, who posted a 29-save shutout in a 4-0 win over Toronto in the PWHL’s opening game on Jan. 1, is proving her first pro season last year in the now-defunct Premier Hockey Federation was no fluke. She earned goalie of the year honors in going 19-1-1 with a PHF-record seven shutouts with the Boston Pride in a league that didn’t include active members of the U.S. and Canadian national teams.

“I think it’s fantastic to see everyone on an even playing field,” Schroeder said of the PWHL, which brings together the world's top players. “It's really great to look back and say all that hard work is paying off and was all worth it."

The 29-year-old Chuli is experiencing feelings of validation for her perseverance and ability since completing a decorated college career at Connecticut in 2016. After stops in Toronto and China in the former Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Chuli spent the past three season with the PHF's Toronto Six, where she won the league’s final championship 11 months ago.

“I’ve always believed in myself,“ said Chuli, who is backing up Canadian national team goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens. “I’ve been through a lot and never really been handed anything. So I think you grow as a person and you build that resilience. Yeah, I’m happy to be where I am. And I hope to keep it going.”

PWHL Toronto and Canadian national team goalie coach Brad Kirkwood expects the skill to improve even more, especially with national team goalies adapting to playing two and three games a week as opposed to three or four games during a two-week international tournament. Another bonus is non-national team goalies no longer have to get side jobs to help make ends meet.

“Now they finally have a platform where they can just do that full time without spending an eight-hour day working ahead of it,” Kirkwood said.

The goaltending has already caught the attention of USA Hockey and Hockey Canada officials, who are scouting the league to help determine roster spots for the women’s world championships in Utica, New York, next month.

“The league really gives us a better opportunity to assess where they are and what their potential may be,” said Toronto coach Troy Ryan, who also doubles as Canada’s national team coach.

Schroeder benefitted in earning a roster spot with Team Canada during its seven-game Rivalry Series against the Americans this winter. Though she didn’t play, Schroeder served as the backup in two outings.

“It was fantastic, and amazing feeling to be invited, and have the opportunity to train with the national team and be with the program again,” said Schroeder, who last represented Canada as a member of the under-18 team in 2017.

Minnesota coach Ken Klee said the emphasis on goaltending is imperative given the how tight most games have been. One goal can make a huge difference in the standings in a league in which teams are awarded three points for a regulation win vs. two for winning in overtime or shootout.

“If you have a good week, you can get yourself right up to the top,” he said.

“There’s no soft goals” Klee added. “And I think the goalies realize how close everything is and so it just makes everything really tight, which is really fun to coach in, I can tell you. But it’s also nerve-wracking.”


AP Women’s Hockey:

John Wawrow, The Associated Press