PWHL Toronto handles first adversity in months like true pros

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A little adversity, needed or otherwise, arrived on the doorstep of PWHL Toronto and its extended winning streak and Troy Ryan’s squad handled it like true pros.

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In the unfamiliar position of trailing after two periods and the even more unfamiliar position of knowing they were not playing anywhere close to their collective potential, PWHL Toronto responded with the kind of pushback you would hope from a team with championship aspirations.

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“The first two periods were not our two best periods of hockey,” Natalie Spooner, scorer of the eventual game-winning goal said following Toronto’s comeback 2-1 victory.

“The first 40 were unacceptable on our behalf,” said Renata Fast whose goal less than three minutes into the third got Toronto back on even terms. “We weren’t happy with the way we were playing and knowing that we had a goaltender in that has been so good for us and we want to get that win for her.”

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That goaltender was Erica Howe appearing in just her third game of the season and making just her second start behind workhorse No. 1 goaltender Kristen Campbell who was getting a much deserved day off after 10 consecutive wins.

All Howe had to do was come in having not played since January and keep that 10-game winning streak going.

“I almost felt bad for her with the pressure of the winning streak and then laying that on in a situation like this, but she handled it well,” Ryan said.

Without Howe keeping them in this one stopping two clear breakaways and holding Boston off on two of the three first-period power play opportunities, Toronto’s third period pushback probably never happens.

The way Toronto rallied was typical of how this team has gone about things all year and that actually includes the rough start when wins were so hard to come by.

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“I just thought we were really soft for 40 minutes and just didn’t do what made us successful,” Ryan said of the first two periods. “But I love the fact that the coaches obviously challenged them in between periods and they challenged each other in between periods so it was just nice to see a little pushback for sure.”

Toronto’s leadership group led by captain Blayre Turnbull, assistants Renata Fast and Jocelyne Larocque, and the rest of that group of Sarah Nurse, Emma Maltais and Kali Flanagan addressed the team long before the coaches arrived to, as Spooner said, “offer a few choice words of their own.”

But that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. This is a team with leadership throughout the dressing room and perhaps is one of the chief reasons the inaugural season is playing out the way it is.

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This group holds each other accountable as much or more than anyone on the coaching staff could. Early on this season when they were losing five of the first six games on the schedule and the rest of the league was looking down on them, this group stayed the course, believed in itself and dug their way out.

So when the first back-to-back poor periods in over two months hit them Wednesday night, it wasn’t panic, but pushback and resolve that got them out of that funk.

“It was honest,” Fast said of the between periods self criticism. “That is probably some of the worst hockey we have played and if we think we can get away with that, we won’t. I think we took the message and turned it around and it was great to come away with the win.”

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Toronto now sits a full three points clear of their closest challenger for first overall in the league. They have six games remaining including a big one Saturday in Ottawa against a group that got an even more shocking wake-up call earlier this week when two of its most popular players were dealt at the trade deadline.

Riding the current win streak there was no need or desire from Toronto management to do anything to mess with its current group, but that didn’t mean there weren’t some anxious moments Monday afternoon as the team made its way home from Pittsburgh with the deadline looming.

“Yeah, we were actually on the team bus coming back from Pittsburgh and we were all together,” Fast said.

According to Fast, there was enough trade chatter and speculation going among that group that it was totally comfortable, but then the team stopped for dinner just as the deadline passed and when they returned to the bus, GM Gina Kingsbury made the trek to the back where the players sit to ease any nerves.

“’I hear you guys talking about some rumours of trades you are hearing’” Fast recalled Kingsbury saying. ‘‘’But just so you know, everyone on this team, we are keeping our group together.’

“It was a little stressful leading up to the deadline but once we heard that news everyone was excited,” Fast said. “Like, we have the pieces we need to win a championship.”

Again, not that it was probably needed, but Wednesday night’s response to a rough two periods was just a little more proof that Kingsbury and her management team made the right call.

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