PWHL Toronto ready for final stretch of season after 'reset' from international break

TORONTO — Despite a split from some of their teammates and coaches, the Professional Women's Hockey League's international break served as a welcome reset for the players on league-leading Toronto.

Seven players, along with head coach Troy Ryan and goalie coach Brad Kirkwood, went to Utica, N.Y., for the women's world hockey championship. Those that remained found time to practice four times a week during their break, which began March 24 and was set to end Thursday at Boston.

"I think it was a good reset for the girls that were here," forward Rebecca Leslie said after practice Tuesday. "Time at home, consistency and a routine, that was huge for us.

"Just spending more time together, I think we really bonded over these three weeks we're excited to bring that into our games this week."

Forward Maggie Connors said they were able to work on concepts and improve even while missing some of their teammates and coaches.

"I think our coaches did an amazing job scheduling and planning lots of lifts, practices, different skill work," Connors said. "And so I really think it benefited the group here and hopefully, obviously, when we get back together on Thursday, we won't have lost a step."

With work, though, came fun. One instance was defender Lauriane Rougeau wearing a balloon on top of her helmet all practice for her birthday last Friday.

"Obviously, this group knows how to have fun on the ice and balance between hard work and having that fun," Connors said. "The coaches implemented tons of games, we had a little competition cup between two teams to keep that competitive energy high."

There isn't a shortage of excitement to get back to action, however.

"I think that we're pretty lucky, we play hockey for a living," Leslie said. "And so, it's pretty fun to come to work every day. Some days were long, it was a long three weeks, not going to lie, with just practising and not playing any games.

"We made the best of it and we know that we're pushing each other to be ready to go for these last five games."

Ryan kept tabs on his team while coaching Canada to a gold medal south of the border. He watched the streams of practices made possible by Toronto video coach Stefanie Thomson.

However, he was quick to point out that allowing the assistant coaches to run practice while reintegrating himself into the fold was important.

Now with three road games this month and two home contests to finish off the regular season in early May, he looks for his team to build on what led it to the top of the PWHL standings.

"We want to pick it up where we left off a while ago," Ryan said. "Obviously we want to keep finding ways to win but you also shift your focus a little bit to playoffs and how we have to play and prepare to be ready for playoffs.

"We'd also like to be in a situation where we don't have to necessarily grind these five games out, where we can set ourselves up for success. If you play well in these games, then you don't have to shorten your bench as much, you don't have to overload any one or two players.

"So you want to manage it a little bit so we're fresh going into the playoffs."

With playoff spots not officially set, and some teams looking to make late post-season pushes, Ryan sees the importance of finishing on a good note.

At 36 points, Toronto is one ahead of Minnesota, four up on Montreal and nine up on Ottawa, which holds the final playoff spot. Boston (22 points) and New York (20) are fifth and sixth, but are not eliminated from playoff contention.

"We want to do what we can to make sure we solidify a playoff spot first," Ryan said. "It's crazy, we've got five games to go after the run we just had, you'd think you'd be in a playoff spot pretty securely but we're not.

"This league is so tight, I think we're comfortable beating any opponent but we also know that any opponent could beat us on any given night as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2024.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press