Larocque's absence striking during PWHL Toronto's 1st loss in 12 games

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To a coach, excuses after a loss are exactly like a response to a social-media troll – basically a waste of your time and effort.

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So with apologies to PWHL Toronto head coach Troy Ryan, we present an explanation — or excuse, if you prefer — for Toronto’s first loss in a dozen games on Saturday in Ottawa.

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Now, the “but it’s a team game” argument types aren’t going to like this any more than Ryan, but we believe wholeheartedly that Toronto would be on a 12-game winning streak rather than heading into a three-week break thinking of a tough loss to Ottawa if Jocelyne Larocque plays in that game.

That said, Toronto did not play close to its best game on Saturday. They were outhit by an opponent, something that just doesn’t happen when this team is playing its game, and they were outshot, another rarity.

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Larocque’s presence would have affected both facets of the game, but it was her absence and the loss of one of Toronto’s two anchors that figured most prominently in this loss.

Larocque deservedly sat out the game after the league reviewed, at the request of PWHL Boston, tape of a net-front scrum in which Larocque and the rest of the Toronto players on the ice immediately attempted to take whatever Boston player in the vicinity of the Toronto net out of the play. Larocque did her part by taking down Alina Muller, but then went a step too far coming down on the prone Muller’s head with her stick.

The league, predictably, determined that was worth of a suspension and Larocque was in street clothes for Saturday’s game in Ottawa.

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It was the first time Toronto has had to deal with the loss of one of its most dependable players for a game and it affected the team on multiple fronts. Physically, they just weren’t themselves. Larocque plays a very physical game as does her longtime defensive partner Renata Fast, but with half the tandem missing that physical tone just never got set.

Toronto goaltender Kristen Campbell makes a stick save.
Toronto goaltender Kristen Campbell (50) makes a stick save in front of Ottawa’s Emily Clark (26) and Toronto’s Renata Fast during second-period PWHL hockey action in Ottawa on Saturday, March 23, 2024. Photo by Justin Tang /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Fast, for the first time all year, did not register a single hit in the game. She clearly missed her partner – it was something like five years since the two had not lined up beside one another in a game — and that had an impact.

On Ottawa’s game-tying goal 38 seconds into the third period, Fast made a cross-ice defensive zone pass to Sarah Nurse that resulted in a turnover at the blue-line and led directly to Hayley Scamurra’s game-changing score. With Larocque on the ice, that’s not a pass or a gamble Fast even attempts to make.

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But that was just one instance of many in a game where Toronto struggled to get the puck out of its own end. A calming influence like Larocque solves a lot of those issues.

Now, that’s not to ignore that a little complacency was creeping into Toronto’s game toward the end of the league’s longest winning streak. That, too, was an issue in this one, but without Larocque in the fold to offset some of that complacency, the issue was exacerbated.

There is, without question, a reliance on Larocque and Fast built into this team that is simply going to be exposed as soon as one or the other isn’t there. Both log over 28 minutes 30 seconds of ice time a night or just under half the game. Without Larocque, Fast’s minutes, to say nothing of her responsibilities, were increased. But the same could be said of Allie Munroe and Kali Flanagan, Olivia Knowles, Lauriane Rogeau and Maude Poulin-Labelle.

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The trickle-down effect was real. The entire defensive corps found themselves playing more minutes than they normally would to make up for the absence of Larocque, while Poulin-Labelle, who has been a healthy scratch for most of the winning streak while she gets up to speed with Ryan’s defensive principals, played sparingly.

Toronto knows exactly what it has in the Larocque-Fast tandem. They have a shutdown defensive pair that plays the game the right way and makes the game easier for their teammates when they are on the ice. It’s why GM Gina Kingsbury and Ryan didn’t bat an eye when on draft day they were getting some sideways glances for passing on a young talent like Muller, who went third overall to Boston, to take Larocque with the second pick.

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Ryan said there was absolutely no hesitation with that selection.

“That’s not a knock on Muller,” he said recently. “Muller would have been the obvious selection in that spot. We think Muller is a great player and a great person, too. We would have loved to have her as well, but we had a plan. When we were able to sign Renata as a free agent, we knew how good Renata is, but know how good she is with Larocque.

“So it was more having that pair and how dangerous that pair can be in a league like this. The physicality side of the league, they both want to play physical. They are both still adding some offensive components to their game. You get what you need. Maybe not quite highlight-(level stuff) like a Muller would give you, but you still get a substantial amount of offence and you get that physicality and the defensive side.”

So, yes, Toronto didn’t play its best game on Saturday for a number of reasons, but chief among those reasons was the absence of Larocque. Both she and Fast are that important to this team.

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