Toronto treads lightly, choosing 4th-place Minnesota over 3rd-place Boston as PWHL playoff opponent

Having the option of choosing their playoff opponent wasn’t taken lightly by the staff and players of the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s Toronto franchise for clinching first-place in the standings.

So sensitive and in-depth were the discussions, coach Troy Ryan knew better on Monday night than to disclose the reasons behind Toronto’s decision to face fourth-place Minnesota over third-place Boston — two teams who finished with identical 12-9-3 records (including four OT/SO wins apiece), with Boston having the tiebreaking edge.

“To be honest, from a hockey perspective, I think it would be somewhat irresponsible to tip my hat to the exact details,” Ryan said. “So at this point, we’ll keep that within house.”

Of all the aspects taken into consideration, ranging from analytics, head-to-head records, travel and injuries, among the most important, perhaps, was the fear of providing their opponent any additional motivation entering the best-of-five semifinal series, which opens in Toronto on Wednesday. Montreal, which finished second, will face Boston in the other semifinal starting on Thursday.

Minnesota coach Ken Klee expressed little surprise in Toronto’s decision by saying: “To me, that’s who I expected.”

Boston coach Courtney Kessel couldn’t help but envision what her player’s reaction would have been had they been selected.

“I think it’s a good thing and a bad thing to kind of be in their position,” Kessel said of Toronto. “I think if they would have chosen us, we would have had a little bit more fuel, you know, like them thinking that they can beat us in choosing the third-place team.”

Leave it to the PWHL to provide an intriguing plot twist entering the playoffs, and following its inaugural 72-game regular season in which the playoff race wasn’t settled until the final game. Toronto played a central role in determining the final standings with its season-ending 5-2 win over Ottawa on Sunday night eliminating Ottawa from contention and securing Minnesota its playoff berth.

The concept of teams selecting playoff opponents has long been entertained in theory in North America’s four major pro sports, but yet to become a reality. The Southern Professional Hockey League introduced a pick-your-opponent first-round playoff format in 2018 before abandoning it two years later.

Toronto’s decision to choose Minnesota as its playoff opponent made sense in various aspects.

Toronto had a 3-1 record against Minnesota in the regular season, while going 3-2 against Boston. Minnesota closed the season losing its final five games, while Boston went 3-1-1, including a 2-1 win over Toronto.

Klee acknowledged travel as being an issue, with Minnesota logging the most air miles in a league whose other five teams are concentrated in the northeast.

“If I was (Toronto), I would say who has the furthest to come and has the toughest travel to get here,” Klee said. But in my mind, our group’s excited. We’re in the playoffs.”

Toronto GM Gina Kingsbury said the process in determining which opponent to select began last week after Toronto clinched first place. Kingsbury first consulted with Ryan before getting feedback from the team’s leadership core and eventually the entire roster.

“In the end, it wasn’t an easy decision. Minnesota was not the necessarily the lead in that right away,” Kingsbury said. “There were a lot of pros and cons on picking Boston or Minnesota. And in the end we just went with what seemed to be a little more pros than cons.”

Toronto captain Blayre Turnbull said the most important thing to remember during the selection process was players focusing on their team and not the opponent.

“No matter who we picked, there’s going to be some people that might think we should have gone the other way,” Turnbull said. “But I think at the end of the day, no matter who we’re going to face in the semifinal round is going to be a really tough opponent.”


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