Stu Cowan: PWHL's first season was a smash in Montreal

While the team suffered OT heartbreak in the playoffs, the players were blown away by the fan support and how the city embraced them.

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The inaugural PWHL season has been a wonderful success.

Nowhere was that more true than in Montreal, even though the local team was swept by Boston in a five-game semifinal series, losing all three games in overtime.

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The Montreal women’s team was able to fill every rink it played in — starting with more than 3,000 for the home opener at the Verdun Auditorium in January, before growing to 10,000 fans at Place Bell in Laval and then filling all 21,105 seats for a regular-season game at the Bell Centre.

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Attendance for the two playoff games at Place Bell was 9,135 and 10,172.

When players met with the media for the last time this season in their Verdun Auditorium locker room on Friday, defenceman Erin Ambrose was asked if she had a message for Montreal fans.

“Merci beaucoup!” she said.

The Keswick, Ont., native then added: “I was excited to come to Montreal when I got drafted here. I’d been here before, I’d kind of seen the love in the city for women’s hockey. But they passed every expectation I think I ever had. For every game we had at Verdun, Place Bell, Bell Centre — it wasn’t just the people in the building, it was a buzz around town. I got to go to coffee shops and get talked to about our play. That’s something that I don’t take lightly. This city deserves a championship and I will probably say it in every single question (I get), it’s disappointing that we couldn’t do that this year.”

Overtime heartbreak was the common theme for the local team in its inaugural season.

Montreal lost its home opener 3-2 in OT to Boston at Verdun Auditorium after an apparent goal by captain Marie-Philip Poulin was called back following video review for goalie interference. Montreal lost 3-2 in OT to Toronto in a sold-out game at the Bell Centre in April. Then Montreal lost three straight OT games to Boston in the semifinal series by scores of 2-1, 2-1 and 3-2. Game 2 went to triple-overtime.

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Montreal outshot Boston 145-102 in the series — including 54-26 in Game 1 — but was only able to score four goals against goalie Aerin Frankel, who finished with a 3-0 record, a 0.97 goals-against average and a .972 save percentage. Three of Montreal’s four goals came on the power play. Montreal goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens posted a 1.70 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage, but had an 0-3 record.

“We ran into a hot goalie,” Montreal head coach Kori Cheverie said. “Hit some posts, missed some empty nets. At the end of the day, we didn’t capitalize on our chances and they did.

“I think the competition this year was absolutely amazing from every single team,” Cheverie added. “Our league, every night it felt like anybody could win the game. I think we can be proud we have a product on the ice that people want to come and watch.”

The level of goaltending in the PWHL at this point is above the level of offensive talent when it comes to depth. Boston and Montreal combined for 11 goals in three games, including five periods of overtime. Montreal basically went with three forward lines and four defencemen in the series.

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The first four games of the other semifinal series between Toronto and Boston had nine goals combined. Toronto won the first two games 4-0 and 2-0, while Minnesota won the next two games 2-0 and 1-0. Game 5 is Friday night in Toronto.

There are signs that the novelty of the inaugural season might be wearing off in Boston and Minnesota. Game 3 of the Montreal-Boston series only attracted 2,781 fans at the Tsongas Center, which has a capacity of 6,496.

The first two games of the other semifinal series packed the Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto with crowds of 8,473 and 8,581. However, Games 3 and 4 only attracted crowds of 3,344 and 2,766 at Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center, which has a capacity of 20,544.

The Minnesota PWHL team set what was then a record attendance for a women’s hockey game when 13,316 showed up for their home opener in January at the Xcel Energy Center. Minnesota beat Montreal 3-0 in that game. Montreal now holds the attendance record from the Bell Centre game.

“I’m looking at the whole of what happened this year,” Poulin said when asked about the poor playoff attendance in Boston and Minnesota. “I’m not going to focus on two games that did not have as many people. There’s lots of things happening in Boston. The Bruins are playing.”

Poulin added that you can’t look at those playoff attendances and “put a stamp” that the league isn’t working.

“I think the whole year has been truly amazing,” she said. “We started from 0 to 100 real quick and I think it’s been pretty amazing to see across every market. Obviously, in playoffs we want more people in the stands. You see on TV it’s not necessarily as packed, but it’s very loud in Boston.

“I think the fans are going to come,” Poulin added. “They will come, they have come. It’s been amazing.”

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