Dream Gap Tour – February 28: USWNT Star Players Put on a Show at MSG

Mark this day in your history books. The first ever professional women’s hockey game was played at the famous Madison Square Garden last night. Seeing them play on a stage that large outside of the Olympics was always a dream, and somehow the game exceeded all expectations.

We never give enough credit to the dedication these athletes have to this sport. 3 times a week these athletes get to the rink early in the morning or late after work in order to get their practices in. To be ready for these games the sacrifices made can not be understated.

Despite the differences in opinion the NWHL sent its support to the PWHPA. (A similar nod of acknowledgement did not come from the PWHPA.)

A perfect analogy.

If the image of PWHPA members facing off in MSG wasn’t enough to show you the importance of the game, Billie Jean King gave a beautiful speech before puck drop. She stayed for the whole game, spending more than half the second period doing an interview while the game was going on. She mentioned her contacts with Kendall Coyne Schofield, the influence of the Women’s Sports Foundation on the creation of the PWHPA and her regret for not finding hockey opportunities early in her athletic career. There was a clear message of hoping to grow the game not only towards women, but people of colour as well, another long time shortcoming of hockey.

As far as the actual game goes: probably one of the best displays of star power I have seen since the 2018 Gold Medal Game between Canada and the USA. That game haunts me still, which is why seeing Maddie Rooney starting gave me extreme bouts of PTSD.

After the less than ideal footage from the game on Saturday, having access to the MSG setup was really impressive to watch on TV. Not only did it provide a much better viewing situation, but it allows me to attach better highlight videos for the goals during the game. Speaking of goals…..

Less than three minutes into the game Brianna Decker bullied everyone on the ice. A beautiful toe drag and a shot through the five hole and Team WSF is on the board early on.

We talked about Decker and Kessel in the first game, how above the rest of the competition they were. Batman and Robin. They have a chemistry that is so hard to find.

Only four minutes later we saw a really smart play by Decker lead to a goal by Amanda Kessel. I love when a player examines the ice and sees a 4D chess move that doesn’t seem to be impressive, but when it’s in slow motion we can see the level these athletes can process the game at. (I hate hockey IQ as an analytical description, what does it even really mean?? No thanks Pierre Maguire.) The shot Decker takes is hard and low, enough to ensure a rebound. A rebound Decker knows Kessel will get to. Brilliant goal. Not flashy, but brilliant all the same.

Roque had such an amazing game on Saturday. Hilary Knight told the press she thought Roque was on her way to being one of the best players in hockey. I remembered that when Roque sent a defender on an adventure to the moon by using the elite bounce the puck off the back of the net while doing a spin-move thing. You know that deke you see once every three years and we freak out about it forever. As I texted everyone I knew about her talent she scored to really emphasize my point. We have a tight game once again, 2-1.

Underrated pun.

Most of the rest of the period was Alex Cavallini stopping shot after shot, breakaway after breakaway, just making Coyne and Knight have nightmares. For about 6 minutes Team Adidas really poured it on but Cavallini gave them nothing after the Roque deflected goal.

And then Decker really wanted to push the point that she’s a star. The poise to keep the puck in the O-Zone, the skill to make a pass through a defender and the ability to control her edges so well that she was able to make all of that seem smooth and easy.

The second period started most of the same way the first ended. Kendall Coyne Schofield getting chance after chance and Cavallini having none of it. In fact neither team was able to beat the goalie in this period, both goaltenders really showing off some of the talent they have. Acrobatic saves that look so easy for them you’d assume they were almost asleep. That’s how good they were. I can’t imagine how frustrated the skaters must have been. Actually, we can, as Hilary Knight was mic’d up and we could hear the frustration in her voice.

There were two interesting tactical choices we saw in the second period.

As Team WSF was on the power-play they drew another penalty. My preference is to immediately give up the puck to get a prolonged 5on3 but Team WSF kept the puck and tried to work some magic on the 6on4 instead. Interesting to see the decision making process for a situation like that, it didn’t work for them here, but something to keep an eye on for future games.

In a shock to no one the other power-play also interested me greatly. Team Adidas was really moving. I like when players refuse to stay stationary but this was a whole other level. Players would make a pass then rotate positions, moving not only laterally but vertically with possession. It makes it harder for the defenders to make decisions on who to cover and if you keep your head up you can execute a perfect give-and-go situation. They were close a few times but no dice in the second period.

As the period winded down Savannah Harmon unleashed her patented wrister. The referee signalled for a goal but when it was shown on the replay the puck very clearly hit the post and stayed out. The referees huddled and eventually came to the right decision. Last thing this game needed was controversy over officiating. The NHL can keep that issue, we don’t need it to spread.

I love the idea of a mic’d up player during the games. It was fun during the outdoor game in Lake Tahoe when Alex Pietrangelo gave us the “oh boy” as MacKinnon barrelled down on him. I would have loved for Cavallini’s reaction to Hilary Knight’s shot (two minutes into the third period) to be on tape. There is no way she saw that puck at all. It’s barely visible on slow motion replay. To coin a term from Norris candidate Justin Holl: she absolutely “uncorked” that. Narrowing the lead to 3-2, this will be a huge third period.

Unfortunately before Team Adidas could tie the game, Brianna Decker kept on cruising. Scoring another goal, this time off a perfect deflection.

Kendall Coyne would bring Team Adidas back to within one goal with four minutes left in the game. Try as they did, Team Adidas could not tie the game. Even worse, no team was able to add any of the bonus points in the standings. Series is now tied 1-1. Much more excellent hockey to come.

Given the magnitude of the game I felt it was important to get an idea of what this game means to women in the game and fans of a sport that so often leaves them behind.

Below are comments shared with me about the impact this game has on people. I appreciate their efforts in sending me their thought. Here they are, quoted directly so as to make sure their words do not get misinterpreted as my opinion:

“Firstly, the Billie Jean King speech was amazing and such an inspiring way to kick things off. To me, this means so much for all the current and future young girls playing hockey, who can believe that they can one day play professional hockey for a living. The NWHL would be an amazing achievement and definitely something women hockey players can strive for. But at this point, it’s just not sustainable enough for players to work second jobs while trying to become the best hockey players they can be.

The sacrifices the PWHPA players are making is truly inspiring and games like this one is a great step in their fight. The hockey itself is so much fun to watch, these are the best women hockey players in the world. The speed and the hands on some of these players is insane, something any hockey fan would be lucky to watch.

It was really encouraging to see the game being broadcast on Sportsnet. Some of the PWHPA commercials featuring NHL players were amazing but made me wonder why I’ve never seen any of them during NHL games…(unless they’ve been on and I missed it) but those would be great to show to the NHL’s broader audience.

A pretty historic game that definitely brings a lot of hope to hockey. More games, more exposure. They’re getting more sponsorships and slowly making progress. I strongly believe in what the players are demanding and I feel like all of the work they’re putting in will eventually, finally, pay off in the long-run.”

Stefi Laguë – @stefilague (Twitter)

“Being able to see an actual women’s hockey game being broadcasted on sportsnet almost feels surreal. Just witnessing the level of skill that these women have, and it being shown on a larger scale while playing at MSG is such a huge step for Women’s hockey. These are top tier level athletes and they deserve every bit of attention they’re getting and more. This league blowing up will show young and impressionable women that a professional hockey career isn’t just for men.”

Amanda Tsonos – @amandatsonos98 (Twitter)

“The flow of the game was MUCH better, yet yesterday was good! Bigger game from Coyne and Knight! It was really fun to watch a women’s game other than the Olympics, don’t get me wrong, I get so passionate for the Olympic Games, but having this other facet was refreshing and a different and fun experience! It was exciting that it was such good quality video, it’s refreshing and much easier to appreciate the subtleties from these elite athletes.”

Natasha Diotte

There is still much work to do given the efforts of these athletes. This can be only the beginning but as far as beginnings go, this is some good hockey to watch.

A roster of the players in the game.

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