Sold-out Scotiabank Arena game the next chapter in burgeoning PWHL Toronto-Montreal rivalry

Going into Friday, Toronto sits in third place in the PWHL standings with 14 points. The team has racked up three regulation wins in a row after a slow start to the season. (Michael Riley/PWHL - image credit)
Going into Friday, Toronto sits in third place in the PWHL standings with 14 points. The team has racked up three regulation wins in a row after a slow start to the season. (Michael Riley/PWHL - image credit)

PWHL Toronto forward Alexa Vasko walked into the dressing room at Scotiabank Arena, typically home to the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, and took in her surroundings.

She and her Toronto teammates took part in an optional pre-game skate at the arena on Friday morning. When the players looked up, they saw white "Battle on Bay Street" rally towels draped over every seat.

In the concourse, staff were unpacking boxes of Toronto jerseys and getting ready for the more than 18,000 fans expected at Toronto's sold-out game against Montreal in this arena on Friday night.

"A few of us were saying, we can't believe this is sold out all the way up to the nosebleeds," said Vasko, who is from nearby St. Catharines, Ont. "I think it's going to be pretty cool when everyone's waving those towels."

While Toronto was on the ice, a few Montreal players came out to take a look around before getting an opportunity to go on the ice themselves.

"We actually wondered how long it took to put all these towels on the seats," Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin said.

The crowd at Friday's game is expected to break an attendance record. Among those in the stands will be lots of friends and family cheering on Montreal forward Laura Stacey, who's from Kleinburg, Ont.

She'll playing under a banner hung in the rafters in honour of her great-grandfather, King Clancy, wearing the same number seven on her back.

Arianne Bergeron/PWHL
Arianne Bergeron/PWHL

It's a special moment for her and for women's hockey, and the latest milestone in an inaugural PWHL season that's seen huge crowds over the first month and a half.

"They're exciting and amazing and they're really surreal, and they give us these moments that we're never going to forget," Stacey said.

"But I think the really special thing about this league will be in the five, 10, 15 years down the road when those firsts are just what we all know. It's not as shocking or it's not as eye-dropping when we're skating on a rink and seeing this many fans. It's the norm."

A turning point

Friday's Toronto-Montreal game will be the next chapter in a growing rivalry. The first game inside Montreal's Verdun Auditorium last month ended in a 4-3 shootout.

That game might have been a turning point for both teams.

The shootout loss to Toronto wasn't Montreal's best effort. But the team has made strides defensively since then, focusing on improving their stick details, among other tweaks.

Montreal has won all three of its last games, including a 2-1 victory over Boston that head coach Kori Cheverie said is a more accurate depiction of who her team is defensively.

Meanwhile, Toronto has won three of its last four games since the shootout win in Verdun. All three wins have come in regulation, helping the team make up for a slow start. Toronto goes into Friday's game in third place with 13 points, three behind Montreal.

WATCH | Spooner on Toronto's turnaround, Canada's comeback Rivalry Series victory:

Much of that renaissance has been propelled by Natalie Spooner, who has been Toronto's best player. She's racked up eight points in the last three games, and leads the league with 10 goals, four ahead of second-place Poulin.

Most recently, she scored a hat trick in a 5-3 win over Boston on Wednesday, playing on a line with Sarah Nurse and Emma Maltais that has looked dynamic.

Add in the Rivalry Series, where Spooner added six points in three games, and you can argue she's playing the best hockey of her career.

Toronto head coach Troy Ryan often tells athletes to spend time improving skills they can be the best in the world at. For Spooner, it's her play in front of the net, screening goalies and never giving up on pucks.

She's been racking up points, but Ryan has been just as pleased with Nurse's two-way game and Maltais's hard-to-play against presence.

"She's the one that's doing a lot of great things to get the breakouts started, get the puck through the neutral zone and then get the puck in their hands," Ryan said of Maltais.

Boston targeted 'natural goal scorer'

When Boston GM Danielle Marmer pulled the trigger on the PWHL's first trade with her Minnesota counterpart, Natalie Darwitz, she was hoping to add a bit more scoring.

Marmer took a good look at her team over the international break. Boston's lines have been in a blender all season, giving Marmer and head coach Courtney Kessel a sense of how lots of different players mesh together.

One stat that stood out in that evaluation: In the team's first seven games, Boston scored the first goal only twice, leaving them chasing leads.

That first goal matters. All but one of Boston's first seven games were decided by one goal. The margin for error in the PWHL is slim.

"I think that's an adjustment for a lot of players," Marmer told CBC Sports.

"They're used to either playing college where there are teams at the top of the ranking, and then you're playing against teams that are in the middle of the pack or the bottom quite a bit. Same with the international events … you see really lopsided games until you get to the quarterfinals, the semifinals, where it gets tighter."

Michael Riley/PWHL
Michael Riley/PWHL

The trade sent rookie defender Sophie Jaques to Minnesota for forward Susanna Tapani and defender Abby Cook.

Tapani gives Boston depth scoring and another option at centre. That adds to a roster that already has several players comfortable playing in the middle.

"She's a natural goal scorer," Marmer said of Tapani.

"Our production wasn't exactly where we wanted it to be. That was an adjustment, with, like I said, having such close games, and games going to overtime as often as they are. It's important that we need to be one goal better each game."

Cook adds size and reach to Boston's blue line, and an identity Marmer said she didn't see on her team before the trade.

"She gets the puck quick and makes decisions with the puck quick," Marmer said, with other defenders in Boston more likely to hang on to the puck.

Going the other way was Jaques, who had a stellar career at Ohio State University. She was only the second defender in history to win the Patty Kazmaier award, given to the best female player in NCAA hockey.

By the end of her tenure in Boston, where she was drafted 10th overall in September, Jaques had slipped down the lineup. Marmer said the team had trouble getting her into games.

Boston hosts New York at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, which you can watch on CBC and on the CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices.

It's only been one game in Minnesota, but Jaques was slotted on Minnesota's top pair with Lee Stecklein and got power play time in a 2-1 win over Ottawa. She earned her first professional point on Abby Boreen's game-tying power play goal.

In Boston, Tapani didn't get on the scoresheet in Wednesday's loss to Toronto. But the team looked dangerous net-front all game, outshooting Toronto 35-18.

Marmer believes Jaques will be a special player in the PWHL, similar to what she showed at Ohio State. She scored 48 points in 41 games last season.

But Marmer wants to win a championship sooner rather than later, and she'll take any chance she gets to make her team better. Make no mistake: Boston is going for it. They don't call it Titletown for nothing.

"Maybe it's a little bit in my blood to be maybe less patient than I could be in trying to win now, but that's part of the commitment that I made," Marmer said.