It started with a perfect net-front pass from Montreal defender Erin Ambrose.
The puck found Montreal captain Marie-Philip Poulin alone in front of New York goaltender Corinne Schroeder, which is always a dangerous place for her to be.
Poulin buried the puck. That seemed to open the floodgates. She added two more goals in Wednesday’s game, and is now in a three-way tie for the league lead in points (four) with Minnesota’s Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Heise.
“[Poulin] is obviously the heartbeat of our team,” Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie said after Wednesday’s game.
“Everything that we ask the group to do, she does it. She’s usually the first one to do it. She’s always competing with herself and her teammates with her details and habits. It was only a matter of time before she started filling the net.”
Poulin had three shots in Montreal’s first game and only one in the second. Going into the third game against New York, Cheverie said the coaching staff asked Poulin to shoot a little more.
WATCH l Poulin scores 1st PWHL hat trick:
“She took that information and brought more pucks to the net, and was shooting off the pass,” Cheverie said.
The team was without top six forwards Laura Stacey and Ann-Sophie Bettez on Wednesday, and had a slow start. But they picked up the pressure and sustained it, even after New York tied the game just 26 seconds into the third period.
Some extra juice came from Catherine Dubois, a reserve player who signed a 10-day contract to fill in for Bettez.
Dubois’ persistence around the net earned her time on Montreal’s number one power play unit on Wednesday, and ultimately a power play goal.
“Her style of play was needed, her ability to go to the net,” Cheverie said. “Truly, she’s a fearless hockey player. That was something that our group really fed off tonight.”
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Montreal’s long-awaited home opener
Dubois was the first reserve player activated since the regular season began, and the first test of the reserve player rules sketched out in the collective bargaining agreement.
What happens if a team burns through their reserve contracts? Do they reset when the playoffs start? That’s not yet clear, and like many things, the league will probably deal with it as it comes in this first season.
Another first on the horizon for Montreal: the team’s home opener on Saturday at Verdun Auditorium against Boston.
Toronto will host Ottawa on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, followed by Boston at Montreal at 3:30 p.m. ET. You can watch both games on CBC Gem, cbcsports.ca, the CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices, and CBC TV.
The full schedule of PWHL games airing on CBC Sports this season is available here.
Poulin got to play in her home province last season with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA) and with Team Canada in the Rivalry Series. But it’s been almost five years since she got to play in front of a Montreal crowd in league play.
WATCH l Ambrose discusses expectations of Montreal sports fans:
“We’ve been training there since November and finally we get our people in our arena, we [can] create that fun environment,” Poulin said on Wednesday. “So I cannot wait. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Minnesota on a roll
On Saturday, it was Zumwinkle who stole the show for Minnesota, scoring the PWHL’s first hat trick in front of a record-breaking home crowd of 13,316. She was named the league’s first star of the week.
On Wednesday, it was Heise who put on a show, scoring two goals and assisting on Kendall Coyne Schofield’s first goal.
WATCH l Zumwinkle discusses her first week in the PWHL on Hockey North:
Heise was the PWHL’s first overall pick this season, and as GM Natalie Darwitz predicted in the pre-season, is on her way to becoming one of the best in the world, if she isn’t already there.
“I think what just makes her so special is her drive to be the best that she can be every single day,” Zumwinkle told CBC’s Rob Pizzo on Hockey North this week.
‘She pushes herself more than anyone else that I know, and I think that’s what’s made her so successful. But on the ice, she sees plays that I’m like, where did that come from?”
Minnesota has yet to lose a game throughout the pre-season and regular season.
WATCH l Heise keeps Minnesota undefeated with two highlight-reel goals:
The kids are alright
Zumwinkle and Heise have come out flying in their first pro season, and they’re not alone. About one-fifth of PWHL roster and reserve players this season have come straight from college or university, as the game and its younger players have gotten faster and more skilled.
The pipeline to pro in women’s hockey usually sees players do four to five years in college, taking advantage of the ability to get a degree and play hockey. That’s always been especially important for women who don’t have millions of dollars awaiting them in the pros.
There was no minimum age to register for the PWHL draft this year, and if the women’s under-18 championship underway in Switzerland is any indication, there’s a lot of talent to come.
One is Canadian defender Chloe Primerano. She led the tournament in scoring as of Thursday afternoon with 12 points in four games, playing on a Canadian squad that may go down as one of the most dominant. They’ll play Czechia in the semifinals on Saturday.
Primerano made history when she became the first defender to score a hat trick in the tournament. But her performance hasn’t surprised her coach, Kris Hogg, at RINK Hockey Academy Kelowna, who’s coached her for the last two years.
“She’s a very elusive, great skater with good edge work, and seems to have the IQ of someone that’s played the game for 40 years,” Hogg said.
Another Canadian standout has been forward Caitlin Kraemer, who passed Poulin as the all-time leading goal-scorer at the tournament.
Kraemer plays alongside U18 teammate Abby Stonehouse with the Waterloo Ravens, where head coach Chad Campbell has gotten to see a lot of Kraemer’s lightning fast release.
Beyond her hands, he pointed to her work ethic as something that makes Kraemer special.
“Some players just take practice off and then expect to go and play a game,” Campbell said. “But she’s totally different. She’s 100 per cent in practice and 100 per cent in a game.”
It’s easy to imagine both wearing senior national team sweaters before long. Both are committed to NCAA colleges, so the PWHL might have to wait a little longer.
Keeping momentum going
You could see the emotion on Jayna Hefford’s face as she caught glimpses of the signs in the stands and the players on the blue line, walking arm-in-arm with Billie Jean King to drop the puck on Jan. 1.
A day later, a young girl came up to the hall of famer in a sold-out Ottawa crowd to thank her for what she’s done. Another milestone came on Saturday, when Minnesota broke Ottawa’s attendance record.
The next challenge for the league’s senior vice president of hockey operations is keeping that momentum going.
“The early excitement is amazing, but our work doesn’t stop here,” Hefford said in an interview last week.
“It actually only gets tougher to be able to keep that excitement and that energy and to continue to attract new fans and retain our existing fans.”
With many of the firsts out of the way, and only one home opener left, Hefford hopes the conversation will turn to the action on the ice.
“We know how good the game is, but we need to continue to work to I think increase the visibility and the awareness and again, attract new people to the game that still probably haven’t seen women’s hockey,” Hefford said.