Ottawa ready for games to get ‘better and better’ as PWHL playoff race heats up

Staring down a Wednesday night matchup against Boston with huge implications for the PWHL's final playoff spot, Ottawa forward Katerina Mrazova says her team is playing "the best hockey right now." (Photo by Andrea Cardin/Freestyle Photography/PWHL)

The playoff race is on — “The Chase to the Championship,” as the PWHL is branding it — with fewer than two weeks remaining in the league’s inaugural regular season.

Teams have either three or four games to go, and only Toronto has clinched a berth in the post-season. Meanwhile, Montreal and Minnesota are both on the doorstep, with four of six teams cracking the playoffs. 

The most interesting part of the “Chase” is the race for the final spot. Ottawa sits in fourth with four games remaining, and Boston is two points behind with three games to go and a chance to nab that final berth if Ottawa stumbles. Last place New York isn’t yet mathematically eliminated, but they’re close, and it would take a miracle or two or three to climb up the rankings and earn that last playoff spot. 

Ottawa controls its fate

“Everything is in our hands,” Ottawa forward Katerina Mrazova told Sportsnet on Monday, after her team’s practice. “Coming up, every game is really important.” 

The players in the nation’s capital control their destiny. Keep winning and they’re in. 

An especially big game comes Wednesday against Boston, with three points up for grabs for a regulation win. Ottawa wins in 60 minutes and they take a five-point lead over Boston, with a game in hand, and a chance to clinch the playoffs as early as Saturday. 

“Obviously Boston is sitting right behind us, fighting for that spot — it’s going to be a really good game,” Mrazova said. “We’re all excited. We want these games when it’s tight and competitive, and we’re really looking forward to it. It’s not gonna be easy, we know that.”

Boston comes in looking for a third straight win, while Ottawa is gunning for a fourth in a row. 

Mrazova hopeful to return this week

One big question is whether Mrazova will be in Ottawa’s lineup.  

The Czechia star injured her knee ahead of world championships earlier this month and was forced to watch from the stands as her team lost the bronze medal game to Finland in a shootout. She wasn’t in the lineup April 20 when Ottawa steamrolled Minnesota, 4-0, at home. 

Mrazova is a massive part of Ottawa’s offence and plays on the first line with captain Brianne Jenner and speedster Daryl Watts. Only four players in the league (Toronto’s Natalie Spooner, Montreal’s Marie-Philip Poulin, New York’s Alex Carpenter and Jenner) have tallied more than Mrazova’s 17 points this season. 

She was practicing this week, but without contact as of Monday.

“The recovery time should be shorter than what we thought it was at the beginning,” she said, of her knee. “It’s been getting better.… Aiming for this week. We’ll see how it’s gonna feel, how it’s gonna be. Anything can change but hopefully it’s gonna be good this week.” 

Certainly PWHL Ottawa teammates and fans are hoping the same. 

“I felt really good before I got injured and I think it’s gonna take me maybe a couple games to get back to how I felt before,” Mrazovasaid. “I have to build the confidence back. I think I’ll keep it simple, build on that every time, in every game. It will be huge for me, coming into the playoffs.” 

Draft Order Points

New York plays Montreal on Wednesday, and a win in regulation would keep them alive in the playoff race so long as Boston beats Ottawa. 

If New York is eliminated from contention on Wednesday, their game on Sunday would be the team’s first where any points earned would be “Draft Order Points.” That’s another of the league’s rules: As soon as a team is eliminated from the playoffs, all points earned in remaining games count towards getting the No. 1 pick in the 2024 PWHL Draft. 

The team with the most points earned upon playoff elimination gets that top pick and a chance to draft a franchise player in a stacked draft that’ll include Canadian national team star Sarah Fillier and Team USA star Hannah Bilka. 

New York plays every team in the league once more to close out the season. They’ve lost eight of their last nine games (two of those losses came in extra time) and with teams still vying for playoffs and wanting to close out the season on a winning note, points will be tough to come by.

Sold-out love for Poulin

The headline going into Saturday night’s tilt between Montreal and Toronto at the Bell Centre was that the sold-out crowd of 21,105 would break a world record for attendance at a women’s hockey game, and the event delivered.  

It’s the sixth attendance record set in the PWHL since it launched in January, fewer than five months ago. The previous record was 19,285 fans, for a game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. 

The Bell Centre attendance made history, but the biggest takeaway from the game was a moment before the puck dropped, one that also involved that record-setting Montreal crowd. Check out the ovation for Poulin, the Montreal captain and Team Canada’s “Captain Clutch,” who recently led her national team to a world championship. You might get chills.   

[brightcove videoID=6351326845112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Toronto the first to clinch, and what if they finish No. 1?

League-leading PWHL Toronto earned a win in that record-setting Saturday night tilt between the PWHL’s top two teams. 

Sarah Nurse scored the winner just 13 seconds into overtime, and her goal not only sealed the victory, it also made Toronto the first team to crack the playoffs. 

If Toronto manages to hold on to that top spot in the standings, they’ll be the first team given a chance to exercise their will via the PWHL’s awesome playoff rule: If you’re first after the regular season, you get to pick your first-round playoff opponent, between the third- and fourth-placed teams. 

The top team will no doubt look at lots of factors, including head-to-head matchups, the health of the teams and overall finish when determining their selection. 

“I think it’s a lot of pressure on the first team,” Mrazova said. “All the teams are gonna be really, really good…. I call it a different season, the playoffs. Whoever it is, it’s definitely not going to be an easy choice.” 

The top team could well pick Ottawa. 

“I would just like to say good luck to them,” Mrazova said, laughing. “If we’re going to go all the way up, we have to beat everyone, so it doesn’t really matter who we play first.” 

Ottawa is heading into this home stretch feeling confident. Goalie Emerance Maschmeyer recorded her second shutout of the season in the team’s last game, which also happened to give her two shutouts in three starts. 

“I think we’re playing the best hockey right now,” Mrazova said. “And I think it’s going to get even better and better.” 

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