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‘Top of their game’: PWHL Minnesota coach lauds team, reflects on season

Minnesota Toronto Hockey
Minnesota players celebrate defeating Toronto in Game 5 of a PWHL playoff hockey series on May 17 in Toronto.
Mark Blinch | The Canadian Press via AP

They still don’t have an official title, but they’re quickly becoming a household name.

The Professional Women’s Hockey League Minnesota team is gearing up for Game 3 in a best-of-five series Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. They players are skating against Boston for the inaugural Walter Cup. Each team, fourth and third seed respectively, has a win under its belt.

Ken Klee
U.S. head coach Ken Klee gestures during the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
Claudio Bresciani | TT News Agency via AP, File

After an April international break, Minnesota returned to league ice in a slump — but they didn’t give up hope in their quest for a spot in the championship.

“We just tried to take it one game at a time. You know, we lost a couple of games there that we shouldn’t have lost,” Minnesota’s head coach Ken Klee told MPR News Friday.

“But I think it was just key that, you know, our group never lost faith. I knew they knew that if they stuck together and played the right way that things could turn around.”

After some losses, that’s exactly what Minnesota did, by executing a reverse sweep over Toronto and clinching a spot in the finals.

In the series against Boston, Klee reunited the Michela Cava, Taylor Heise and Kendall Coyne Schofield line after breaking it up in the semifinals.

“Their hockey IQs are very high,” Klee said. Cava is cerebral and smart. Kendall is one of the fastest players in the world. And Taylor “can do a little bit of everything” with a great shot and “a great knack for getting to the net and scoring goals.”

Every goalie in the PWHL has a regular season save percentage of 0.915 or higher and penalty kills have been rampant, which Minnesota has struggled to overcome. But Maddie Rooney and Nicole Hensley have been integral to keeping the team alive — and the pair has a relationship that’s unique across leagues.

“They are good friends, they push each other, but they also really support each other and really are cheering for the other one when the other one’s in the net,” Klee said. “I know there’s not a lot of teams in professional hockey, men’s or women’s, that have that kind of dynamic duo that both of them are just really on top of their game.”

Support from beyond the ice — and beyond the X — continues to keep the team inspired and in good spirits.

“We’ve had crowds at the X all year. We’ve had great support, even on the road. The crowds in Toronto were tremendous. The crowds in Boston have been great,” Klee said.

The league record-setter was Montréal versus Toronto in front of 21,105 fans — a sellout at Montréal’s Bell Centre. It was the highest attendance for any women’s hockey game ever worldwide. The largest crowd in St. Paul, and fifth-most in the league, was 13,316 fans when Montréal visited Minnesota on Jan. 6.

“For me, it’s just really exciting for these players to be able to get recognized for the top athletes that they are,” Klee, a former Washington Capitals defenseman and U.S. Women’s National coach, said.

“The game is exciting, it’s fast, it’s physical, all the things you’d want from hockey,” he added. “And I just really appreciate all the fans coming out … to really support these women as they’re chasing their goals and dreams of getting to play professional hockey.”

Klee said he’s not privy to news about the team finally getting a name, but rumors swirled last year about the alleged title “Minnesota Superior” — which would be especially fitting should the team win the first-ever championship in the league.

Either way, the season has been “tremendous,” Klee said, and “it’s an honor just to be a part of it.”

Puck drop for game 3 in the finals is 6 p.m. CST at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Game 4 is scheduled for Sunday at home at 5 p.m., and if Minnesota can’t close the deal, there’ll be a deciding Game 5 in Boston on Wednesday at Tsongas Center.

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