TORONTO, Ontario -- If you had "Boston Pride get swept in semis" on your PHF Playoff Bingo card, congratulations-- you won at life.
After scoring fewer than two goals per game for the better part of the season's second half, the Minnesota Whitecaps scored nine goals in two games. Goaltender Amanda Leveille capped off a tremendous return with 77 saves combined to knock out the two-time Isobel Cup champions. That means this year, a team other than the Pride will be in the Final for the first time in four years (the Pride did qualify for the Cup Final in 2020, but that game was never played due to the pandemic).
Jonna Albers factored heavily on Thursday's scoresheet with a hat trick (one even-strength, one shorthanded, and one empty net goal). Saturday saw scoring from four different Whitecaps, a welcome sight, especially in the postseason. Even better to see is Leveille returning to form after being injured, showing she can win a series for her team.
That said, we still have one more series to go, with the Connecticut Whale and Toronto Six going the three-game distance, and Minnesota will likely be keeping their eyes peeled to see what their competition will look like. Let's look at the possible scenarios.
#4 Minnesota Whitecaps vs. #2 Toronto Six
Regular Season: 0-4 (2-3/OT Nov. 5; 2-3 Nov 6; 0-1 Feb. 25; 1-7 Feb. 26)
The Whitecaps haven't had a lot of luck against the Six, but the good news is they've played very close games three of the four times they've faced off against them (except for that last game in February).
Also, Leveille will have over a week to rest up for the fast and deep Toronto offense that can throw a lot of rubber her way. After seeing as many shots as she has, it could be a blessing or a curse to have Brittany Howard, Emma Woods, Shiann Darkangelo, and others coming at you. That said, I think the biggest thing for Minnesota will be to shore up on defense -- that means sticks in the lanes, keeping the angles flat, and not allowing chances up the middle on Leveille.
Connecticut did that well in their two games thus far against the Six, but Toronto plays a very good possession game and can hem a defense in their own zone if they aren't careful. Minnesota has a lot of speed, and if they can utilize that and catch some of the Six's slower defenders flat-footed, it might just work in their favor, whether that means getting in tight on net or drawing penalties and tiring out Toronto's penalty kill.
Of course, there is Elaine Chuli to consider. The perennial Goalie of the Year contender played an incredible Game Two against the Whale and, much like Lev, can steal a game or a series. With it being a one-game final, the Six would have to really start strong and try their best to insulate their net. Both these teams are built similarly in that they focus a bit more on driving the puck forward, but the advantage I think the Six have is that their team defense is coming together and allowing a lot fewer shots to reach Chuli. Minnesota would have to get creative and maybe downright gritty to try and beat her.
Toronto Six vs. Connecticut Whale
Regular Season: 1-3 (0-2 Dec. 9; 4-3 Dec. 10;1-3 Mar. 10; 0-3 Mar. 11)
The Whale have been slowly mounting a case for Lady Isobel since the start of 2023, coming into the playoffs on an incredible six-game win streak, including those last two against Minny. With the last two regular season games coming so close to the postseason, it'll be interesting to see what adjustments the Whitecaps would make to challenge them.
Again, the loss margins haven't been incredibly large here, and with Minnesota getting a lot more out of its secondary scoring against Boston, I would really want to see the Whale rise to that occasion as well. In my plus/minus piece detailing Game Two against the Six, I said that secondary scoring would likely have been a difference maker -- seeing players like Caitrin Lonergan and Melissa Samoskevich hitting the back of the net to take some of the onus off of top scorers Kennedy Marchment and Taylor Girard.
The Whale also have a solid defense that plays smart with the puck, which keeps Abbie Ives from seeing a lot of shots, especially recently. That could be the difference maker for this matchup if it were to happen -- we've said at many points in the regular season that while Boston is a very talented team up front, it can be inconsistent on defense which in turn put a lot of the burden on rookie goaltender Corinne Schroeder to come up big. That kind of bit them in the end, but Connecticut is built differently and knows its strengths have to come from the blueline out.
Moreover, they have forwards who can contribute in that regard; Girard is a standout on both sides of the puck, as are Lonergan and Alyssa Wohlfeiler. I can see the Whitecaps succeeding much more in their transition game here than from any kind of set play.
That said, we are set to drop the puck for the last time between the Whale and Six at 6 p.m. Eastern at Mattamy Athletic Centre to find out which matchup we will get. Yours truly will have a preview of that game and will be on-site in downtown Toronto to keep you posted on who punches their ticket to Arizona.