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After signing her three free agents Lee Stecklein, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Kelly Pannek Minnesota GM Natalie Darwitz made it very clear that she intended to have a fast team focused on attacking. The stars aligned for Darwitz when her team won the first pick at the first PWHL draft and she was able to draft Minnesota native highly sought after forward Taylor Heise. Prior to the draft, I asked Darwitz if she was worried about her goaltending since she hadn’t signed a goaltender in free agency, and it looked obvious she would pick Heise with her first pick. She simply smiled and said, I’m confident we’ll be able to get great goaltenders. And she did, picking national team goalie Nicole Hensley with her second pick, Amanda Leveille with her 11th and adding two more Minnesota native goaltenders in free agency in national team’s Maddie Rooney and Lauren Bench.
Clearly, Darwitz didn’t only bet on an attacking side, but also on Minnesotan’s pride, in total, she’s signed 12 players who were born in the state and some more who had played their NCAA hockey at the University of Minnesota or for the PHF’s Minnesota Whitecaps like captain Coyne Schoefield. Five games in, it appears that Darwitz has found the right recipe as her team has yet to lose in regulation and stands alone at the top of the standings with 12 points and the best goal differential in the league with a +6.
Tonight’s opponent is no slouch either though as Montreal comes to town as the runner up in the standings with 10 points. Daniele Sauvageau stroke gold in free agency, signing three Team Canada players including the best player in the world: Marie-Philip Poulin, the best goaltender in the world: Ann-Renée Desbiens and power forward Laura Stacey. Six games in though, head coach Kori Cheverie still hasn’t managed to get the best out of her roster. Montreal’s defense is struggling game in, game out with too many turnovers and has issues launching attacks.
Furthermore, it took a few games for Marie-Philip Poulin to find the back of the net which made Montreal’s start seem even more laborious. Thankfully for her general manager though, Captain Clutch is back to her scoring ways and her appetite for the big moments remains intact. She looked every bit like the Olympic hero she’s been since 2010 in Saturday’s defeat against Toronto scoring a game-tying goal with 17 seconds left in regulation. As for Ann-Renée Desbiens, she also had a slow start to the season, but she showed just how good she can be in the last match, standing on her head for much of the game and multiplying the incredible saves.
The last time Montreal played in Minnesota, the local favorite won a one-sided affair 3-0 thanks to a Grace Zumwinkle hat trick (completed in an empty net) and the fact Montreal has had issues staying out of the penalty box. This was the first PWHL game played in an NHL team building and it established an attendance record with 13 316 fans. That game took place on a Saturday night though, we’ll see tonight if the Minnesota fans turn up on a Wednesday night. In Montreal the last game played on a Wednesday, 6,334 fans turned up at the Place Bell in Laval, braving a snowstorm to do so. We’ll see if Montreal can avenge its 3-0 defeat from early January.
Tonight’s game is set for 8:00 PM ET (7:00 PM CT) and can be seen on the league’s Youtube channel and TSN+ for English coverage and on Tou.Tv for French coverage. There is one game broadcasted on TSN tonight, but they’ve elected to show the Boston vs Ottawa duel.