Toronto Six need to sink Connecticut Whale in semifinal series to pursue Isobel Cup

Becoming the first Canadian team to win an Isobel Cup requires clearing a hurdle that's tripped the Toronto Six in back-to-back years.

The Six open a best-of-three Premier Hockey Federation semifinal Friday against the visiting Connecticut Whale in Toronto's Mattamy Athletic Centre.

The winner advances to a one-game championship March 26 in Tempe, Ariz., to determine which PHF team hoists the Isobel Cup in 2023.

Toronto was the higher seed in its 2021 and 2022 semifinal — one-game affairs — and lost both to eventual champion Boston Pride.

"The last two seasons were kind of disappointments for us, so it makes you that much more hungry going into the next season," Six forward Emma Woods said. "All the returners are feeling that big-time this year.

"We want to win the Isobel cup. It's never come back to Canada. There's a lot of anticipation and nerves of course too, but a lot of excitement. We're here to win."

The Six and Whale square off in back-to-back games Friday and Saturday afternoons. A third game, if needed, is scheduled for Monday at Mattamy which is housed in Maple Leaf Gardens.

The defending champion and top-seeded Pride host the Minnesota Whitecaps in the other best-of-three semifinal starting Thursday.

Toronto (17-5-2) ranked second and Connecticut (14-8-2) third in the regular season. They split their season series at two wins apiece.

The Whale, coached by former Toronto Maple Leaf winger Colton Orr, lost 4-2 to Boston in last year's Isobel Cup final.

Connecticut rides a six-game win streak, including four straight on the road, into Toronto.

"We're on that streak but there's still more work to do," Orr said. "For us, it's a businesslike mentality and continue that message of we've got unfinished business from last year."

While Brittany Howard is Toronto's primary offensive weapon averaging 1.3 points per game in her first Six season, Connecticut counters with Kennedy Marchment and her 1.5 per game.

"Britt is a highly skilled hockey player," said Six head coach and Hockey Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney. "Kind of surprised she's not in the mix for the national team, but that's another story I guess.

"She's fun to watch. She pushes the rest of the team to be as good and everyone brings their play up."

After coming out of hockey retirement in January to sign a US$150,000 contract for next season, Six forward Daryl Watts is rounding into form, says Heaney,

Watts scored twice and had an assist in a two-game split with Boston to conclude the regular season.

"She's hopefully peaking at the right time. We knew it was going to take a bit of time," Heaney said. "She's starting to be the player that we knew she could be and another player that's not just good for the Six, but also for the league."

The Six's home rink at Canlan Ice Sports features wider, international-sized ice. The semifinal, however, will be played on an NHL-sized surface in Mattamy.

"I think our defence is more suited for the smaller ice surface," Heaney said. "All the other teams play on NHL-sized so we're used to it."

The PHF, formerly the NWHL, expanded to seven teams this season with the addition of the Montreal Force. Montreal went 8-14-2 in its expansion year.

Boston has reached the Isobel Cup final four times in six years.

Spurred by PHF-leading scorer Loren Gabel of Kitchener, Ont., the Pride chase a three-peat in 2023.

"We want to win it again. We want to win this year, next year and the year after that," said Pride coach Paul Mara.

A best-of-three semifinal followed by the one-game final is a playoff imbalance that Toronto's Woods accepts for now as a means of determining a champion.

"I think everyone probably could agree that we'd like to see it as a series at some point," said the 27-year-old from Burford, Ont.

"There's a lot of reasons why you probably couldn't have it that way this year. We all understand that. One game is one game and you've got to give it your best if you want to win the championship anyway."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press