One win is required for the Toronto Six to become the first Canadian team to hoist the Isobel Cup.
The Six face the surprising Minnesota Whitecaps in the Premier Hockey League’s championship game Sunday in Tempe, Ariz.
Toronto reached the final for the first time in its third year in the women’s league. The Six advanced by beating the Connecticut Whale in a best-of-three semifinal in Toronto.
After dropping the first game of the series, the Six staved off elimination by winning two straight.
“I kind of weirdly think losing that first game helped us a lot to come together and realize what it was going to take win those next two games,” captain Shiann Darkangelo told The Canadian Press.
“It definitely makes your team stronger having to battle out a series like that. For some of the younger players, who haven’t played in a final, that helps our momentum going into Arizona.”
The PHF’s lone Canadian team in 2021-22 — the Montreal Force joined this season — the Six routinely dealt with COVID-19 travel delays, complications and restrictions criss-crossing the border to play five U.S. clubs.
“The girls weren’t as tired this year,” said Six general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James. “We put a lot of emphasis on the support system, off-ice training, game training, meal preps, everything away from the game we did a lot more work.
“This year, my goal was to keep everybody tight, everybody on track and try not to get sidetracked with anything.”
Mullett Arena, which is the home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, is where the Isobel Cup’s seventh champion will be crowned.
The trophy was named after the daughter of Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley of the NHL’s Stanley Cup.
James believes the women’s world championship on the horizon limited the PHF to the one-game final, instead of a series like the semifinals.
Some PHF players will report to their respective countries’ teams next week to start preparing for the April 5-16 tournament in Brampton, Ont.
“I think it has to do with the PHF’s commitment to not interfere with the growth of women’s hockey,” James said.
“The world championships will start and we have players in the league that need to join their teams. In my opinion, the last thing you want to be doing is overlapping, so I really think it was out of respect for the world championships.”
Toronto (17-5-2) ranked second in the regular season and Minnesota (10-11-3) fourth.
The Whitecaps upset the back-to-back defending champion Boston Pride in two straight games, however, in their semifinal.
“Maybe a little bit surprised, but they’re a good team too and playoff hockey is different,” Darkangelo said.
The Six went 4-0 versus the Whitecaps this season. Three games were decided by a single goal.
Veteran Whitecaps goalie Amanda Leveille of Kingston, Ont. ranked second in the league in both save percentage (. 923) and goals against average (2.43).
She’s previously won Isobel Cups with Minnesota (2019) and the Buffalo Beauts (2017).
“We’re really confident going into the game this week,” Leveille said. “We played extremely well against Boston.
“We really suffocated their offence and we know that we have to continue that against Toronto. They have a lot of really talented players on the offensive side along with their goaltender Elaine Chuli, who is awesome as well.”
Seven players, including goaltender Chuli of Waterford, Ont., have played for the Six since expansion. Chuli posted a 31-save shutout in Monday’s deciding game of the semifinal.
Chuli won the PHF’s goaltending award last season and is nominated for it again.
“We rely on Chuli quite a bit,” Six head coach Geraldine Heaney said. “I believe we have the best goaltender in the league. She’s been a big part of the Six’s success that we’ve had this season.
“That’s probably one of the big reasons why we’re heading to the Isobel Cup, along with the great team on front of her.”
James signed Brittany Howard, whose 1.3 points per game in her first PHF season ranked third, to replace the offence lost when Mikyla Grant-Mentis went to the Buffalo Beauts last summer.
Howard of St. Thomas, Ont., led the Six with 16 goals and 10 assists in 20 games, and has added another two goals and two assists in three post-season games.
After elimination in the semifinal in their first two seasons, the Six intend to finish the job in the desert.
“It would be pretty special for everybody,” James said. “I don’t think anybody would ever tell you that you get tired of winning.”
TSN will broadcast the 9 p.m. ET final.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press