One would be hard-pressed to find a team feeling better about itself heading into the scheduled 10-day PWHL break than the group right here in Toronto.
Oh, head coach Troy Ryan will tell you and anyone who wants to listen that his team hasn’t nearly reached its peak and he’s not wrong. But from where it was just a few short weeks ago to where it is now feels huge.
Even two weeks ago, the questions far outweighed the answers about a PWHL Toronto team that was blessed with tons of national team talent and management but came out of the gate slower than any team in the league.
Of course, that just delighted those outside Toronto who seem to get as much satisfaction out of any team from the Big Smoke struggling as they do their own burg’s success.
But the struggles were real, no question. The team wasn’t scoring. Starting goalkeeper Kristen Campbell was facing a ton of odd-number rushes and, worse, was widely being considered the weak link on a struggling team when a handful of those shots found the back of the net.
Campbell has since put those notions to rest winning her past three starts in impressive fashion, none less so than the Jan. 20 shootout win in Montreal that started the rebound. It included stopping the top women’s player in the world —Marie-Philip Poulin — in overtime twice point blank and then winning the shootout battle with her stopping Poulin on three of her four attempts before Toronto eventually won it.
Primarily because she was the third keeper on Canada’s national team, and not the known commodity either starter Ann-Renee Desbiens or backup Emerance Maschmeyer were, Campbell got stuck with this label as the potential weak link in Toronto’s chain.
Of course, that was from outside the organization. Inside, Ryan, GM Gina Kingsbury and goalies coach Brad Kirkwood, who are all well acquainted with Campbell’s talent and work ethic having worked with her at the national team level, knew the early struggles were just a matter of knocking off the rust after limited playing time over the previous three years.
In her past three starts Campbell is a perfect 3-0 with a .921 save percentage and a 1.67 goals against average.
The other main issue in the early portion of the season, when Toronto was scuffling with a 1-5 record, was the lack of goal-scoring.
The team was dominating time of possession in the opponent’s zone and regularly outshooting the teams they were playing, but were life and death to put one in the back of the net.
Natalie Spooner, who now leads the league in goals scored with seven tallying two in Saturday’s 4-1 home win over Minnesota, was keeping the ship afloat almost single-handedly in that department, but things are opening up in that area as well for Toronto.
This will likely never be a team that wins games by four and five goals regularly, but the scoring load is starting to spread out a bit with both captain Blayre Turnbull and defender Renata Fast picking up their first markers on Saturday.
The recent addition of Victoria Bach, a player whose forte is scoring and creating goals, will certainly help too.
Bach was reunited with her Boston University linemate and roommate, Rebecca Leslie, alongside another BU alum in Jesse Compher for Saturday’s win.
And while she’s still getting up to speed with the league after sitting out the first month to complete her teacher’s college training, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the national team veteran will eventually find the net and perhaps give Toronto’s anemic power play a bit of a boost.
But more than anything, it just feels as if the team as a whole is settling in. Defensively, the forwards and defence appear to be much more in synch preventing all those three-on-ones and two-on-ones that seemed to be occurring regularly through the first five games.
Offensively, the chances around the net are good chances and are coming in bunches with Spooner suddenly having all kinds of company from her teammates in those dirty areas around the opposing crease.
Early on, all the shots seemed to come from the periphery with little to no second-chance opportunities after the initial save.
“I think (Saturday), it felt like we were getting some bounces that we may not have gotten earlier in the season,” Turnbill said. “But I think overall, our last few games have been our best games so I think we are just trying to keep our foot on the gas and improving every single game and just keep it rolling.”
Toronto won’t see action again until Feb. 14 in Boston as the league takes its scheduled break to allow for national team duties and the completion of this year’s Rivalry Series which will feature 10 players from Toronto’s 23-woman roster.