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The PWHL Learning Curve

How PWHL New York is navigating a new roster and rulebook in a new women's hockey league.

PWHL New York Celebrates along the glass after Emma Woods scorees in overtime to secure a 3-2 win over PWHL Minnesota. Photo Credit: Kelly Hagenson/PWHL
PWHL New York Celebrates along the glass after Emma Woods scorees in overtime to secure a 3-2 win over PWHL Minnesota. Photo Credit: Kelly Hagenson/PWHL

"We're gonna win on Sunday," PWHL New York forward Emma Woods told me unprompted Friday afternoon as I handed her a microphone at Chelsea Piers. Woods and her teammates just left the ice after the penultimate practice before they hit the road to take on the undefeated PWHL Minnesota team.

Come Sunday, New York would battle back from a 0-2 deficit on the road to send the game into overtime. As fate would have it, Woods would score the game-winning goal in overtime to win the game and hand PWHL Minnesota its first loss of the early season.

Game blouses (or teal sweaters)!

New York is still under a .500 winning percentage in the league standings, but like all teams with the New York nameske before them, they've inherited a gritty, never quit style.

As Woods and her teammates navigate the newness of the league – one they hope will be the version to go the distance – they also find themselves dealing with early injuries and uncharted waters in women's hockey.

Seeking Consistency

After a dominant 4-0 win over Toronto in their first game, PWHL New York fell to Montréal 5-2 Wednesday night in their UBS Arena home opener - the team will also call Bridgeport, CT home during the 2024 season.

"We're a ways away from where we need to be to beat a team like that," PWHL New York head coach Howie Draper told Black Rosie Media during Wednesday's postgame scrum.

After scoring first, Draper's squad got beat by Montréal forward Marie-Philip Poulin, her first of the season and the game. Poulin would collect a hat trick against New York. Draper felt the visiting team did a better job of winning puck battles, but also commented that his team might be lacking confidence.

PWHL Quick Turnaround

The PWHL started six months after it announced its launch. Although teams had a longer training camp than will be the norm in future seasons, there has been a lot for coaches and players to get used to ahead of the inaugural puck drop.

"We don't have the luxury of having had a lot of players that have played together, at least at this level, or close to this level, and a coach that's coming in that hasn't had the luxury of playing with a lot of the players either. So we're all still trying to learn what makes each other tick. And again, it's part of the refinement process."

While Draper and his staff have focused on simplifying some systems, Draper seemed content to wade out any choppy waters early, relying on the abundance of experience and professionalism on his roster.

Ultimately, there is a learning curve. Although the PWHL New York players are making time to get to know each other, Draper admitted there might be things the coaching staff can to do accelerate the teambuilding process.

"It's a mature group, and they've gotten together a couple of times on their own and you know, they're doing what they need to do to help build those bonds off the ice anyway, to get to know each other a little bit better," Draper told me Friday.

"I think that's a big part of the battle is when you can come together off the ice and you build those relationships away from the game first and then oftentimes those will help reap the benefits when we're on the ice and you're right and we probably can do a little bit more work in that area."

New League, New Rules

In addition to a quick on ramp, the New York team along with the rest of the league are also acting as guinea pigs for a more physical game. For the first time in U.S. or Canada, a women's pro league will use a combination of AHL and NHL rules, and officials. While there remains no open ice hitting, players and officials are feeling out a version of women's pro hockey with more physicality.

Additionally, the PWHL has introduced its own unique rules. The most exciting for players might be the "jailbreak" rule stating that a team that scores shorthanded, or while on a penalty kill, will return to even strength.

PWHL New York was the first bit by the new rule, as PWHL Toronto's Emma Maltais scored shorthanded to spoil New York Bridgeport (I know, I know) home opener. Former PHF Rookie of the Year Taylor Girard scored the second-ever shorthanded goal for PWHL Boston over the weekend. Girard was a shorthanded or "power kill" specialist in her two seasons with the Connecticut Whale. She scored four shorties out of10 regular season goals during the 2022-23 season.

"We've come this far in our careers with, you know, none of our teeth going missing, and no noses broken, so I'm happy keeping it that way."

For Woods, while some of the rules are an adjustment mentally, she doesn't feel it will affect the play on the ice a great deal.

"We haven't like overthought it much," Woods said about the "jailbreak" rule in particular.

"Obviously, if you have a chance to score on shorthanded, and maybe put a little more into the scoring opportunity, but it shouldn't change your [penalty kill]. There's small things that have changed, but nothing that's really going to affect our game plan or the way we think on the ice," she added.

Emma Woods (#67 white) evades the PWHL Minnesota defense and launches the puck towards net. Photo Credit: Kelly Hagenson/PWHL
Emma Woods (#67 white) evades the PWHL Minnesota defense and launches the puck towards net. Photo Credit: Kelly Hagenson/PWHL

One thing that unequivocably will not change is the level of protection for athletes. Women in hockey have always worn full face protection in the form of bubbles or cages. Although the AHL and NHL play with half-face visors, there was never any interest in changing the safety protocols for the PWHL.

"There's been no change and not even any discussion on that at this point," PWHL Senior Vice President told me in November. "I'm not sure there's a want from anyone to do that."

Woods confirmed as much Friday in Connecticut.

"I mean, my personal opinion is, we still have our teeth and we still have our noses in check. So I think we've come this far in our careers with, you know, none of our teeth going missing, and no noses broken, so I'm happy keeping it that way."

Hockey is plenty physical without open ice hits and visors. To that end, New York has found themselves down several players early in the season.

Injury Bug

Captain Micah Zandee-Hart has yet to make her PWHL debut. Zandee-Hart practiced with the team Friday sans the red jersey designated to players who are not cleared to participate in full contact activities.

Zandee-Hart did not compete in the 3-2 OT win against Minnesota Sunday and is not expected to participate in the PWHL 3-on-3 Showcase at the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend in Toronto.

Additionally, women's hockey veteran Madison Packer is coming back from an upper-body injury suffered during training camp. In eight pro seasons with the Riveters, Packer tallied 65 goals and 54 assists, which ranks her second among all-time league scorers. Three-time Isobel Cup champion with the Boston Pride Jillian Dempsey holds the all-time scoring title with 146 career points (70 goals, 76 assists).

"Her injury set her back a little bit. So we're, we're waiting for her tempo to get up a little bit. And so she got a few more shifts, I think, this game then she got last game. So we're gonna keep building on that and see, see where she can get to."

Before Sunday's game in Minnesota, veteran forward Jill Saulnier was added to injured reserve, promoting Alexa Grushow to a Standard Player Agreement (SPA). Grushow was the 13th forward against Minnesota and Packer was added to the fourth line.

While there are plenty of scoring options on the New York roster, the team has seen defensive breakdowns lead to a heavy workload for 2023 PHF Goaltender of the Year Corinne Schroeder. The former Boston University Terrier made 39 of her league-leading 98 saves Sunday against Minnesota.

After feeling outworked by Montréal on the road, New York will have to commit to defensive discipline in all three zones to get on the other side of a winning record.

New York will face PWHL Montréal at Place Bell on Tuesday at 7:00 pm ET.


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