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A Primer on the PHF and Isobel Cup Playoffs

They’re coming to the Tampa area - here’s everything you need to know before you go!

NWHL Isobel Cup Playoffs - Championship Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In case you haven’t heard, there’s quite a bit happening in Wesley Chapel this coming weekend. AdventHealth Center Ice is playing host to the Premier Hockey Federation’s Isobel Cup Playoff Friday, March 25, through Monday, March 28. All of the Federation’s teams will vie for the chance to hoist the Isobel Cup, its championship trophy, on Monday night.

But who the heck are you? You ask. And what in the world is the Isobel Cup? Or the PHF? Hang on, how did you even GET here?

Yeah, yeah, I know, I don’t even go here, but I DO write for The Ice Garden, SB Nation’s hub for all things women’s hockey, and I happen to know quite a few answers to those questions you’re asking. So strap in and get excited, because this league is ready to take the Gulf by storm.

So what is the Premier Hockey Federation?

Founded in 2015 as the National Women’s Hockey League, the PHF is a professional hockey league in its seventh year of operation. The first iteration, the NWHL, founded four teams – the Boston Pride, the Buffalo Beauts, the Connecticut Whale, and the New York Riveters – then added the Minnesota Whitecaps in 2018-19. The Toronto Six were founded in 2021 ahead of a single-site truncated season in Lake Placid, NY. Ahead of Year Seven, the NWHL rebranded to the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) in an attempt to promote greater gender inclusion within the league and reflect the fact that potentially not all of its players identify as cis women.

Now, the Federation boasts these six teams and has a $25 million dollar investment promised from its Board of Governors to expand to eight, then 10, by the 2023-24 season. One of those teams is to call Montreal home; the others are believed to be stateside, but no other locations have yet been disclosed.

What’s the Isobel Cup?

Named for Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy, one of the first-ever female hockey players and the daughter of Lord Stanley, the Isobel Cup (or “Izzy,” as she’s called) is the championship trophy awarded every year to the top team in the Fed. Of the six teams, only one – the Boston Pride – have won Izzy twice, in the inaugural 2015-16 season and the “bubble” season in 2021 (which had to be cut short due to issues surrounding COVID-19 and resumed in Boston). In addition, the Beauts won in 2017, the Riveters in 2018, and the Whitecaps in 2019. No Isobel Cup was awarded in 2020 due to COVID.

Having originally been created with handles, the now-handleless Cup is passed from player to player much like the Stanley Cup is in the NHL (where have the handles gone? It’s still a mystery).

What’s the playoff format?

The top two teams - Connecticut and Toronto - have a bye heading into the first round Friday afternoon. Seeds 3 and 6 – Boston and Buffalo – will play each other, with seeds 4 and 5 (Minnesota and Metropolitan) making up the other match-up. No. 1 seed Connecticut will play the lowest remaining seed Sunday, March 27, while Toronto faces off against the highest remaining seed. The Isobel Cup Final is set for Monday evening, March 28.

Where can I watch?

Other than AdventHealth Center? [get your tickets here - JG] ESPN+ has all your streaming needs in the States, while ESPN International affiliates (including TSN Direct in Canada) picking up the rest. The Isobel Cup Final will air live Monday at 9 p.m. on ESPN2 in the U.S. and TSN2 in Canada.

Okay, but… why should I care?

Because it’s hockey. Because it’s exciting. Because this league has the parity the NHL wishes it could. And because it’s right in your backyard for the first time ever. Get into it, because it’s already into you.

Now let’s get into the teams.

Connecticut Whale (#1 Seed)

Record: 15-3-2

Home Rink: Danbury Ice Arena, Danbury, CT

Head Coach: Colton Orr

Captain: Shannon Turner

Once the top dogs of the then-NWHL, the Whale have had to do a bit of rebuilding over the last couple seasons. Now, they’re tops heading into the postseason, and probably one of the most complete teams the franchise has seen in a while. It starts in net with the duo of Abbie Ives and Mariah Fujimagari, then stretches to a strong defense led by captain Turner and Rebecca Morse.

Finally, we have a dynamic offense led by Newcomer of the Year contender Kennedy Marchment, who’s already taken over the franchise scoring title. Joining her are Emma Vlasic, Amanda Conway, Janine Weber, Emily Fluke, Alyssa Wohlfeiler, and Taylor Girard, in a strong example of spreading the wealth amongst the forward lines (seriously – their goal differential is +30, which is insane). Allie Munroe and Tori Howran can also contribute on the back end as needed. Overall, this has been a seriously fun team to watch, and seeing them go from rebuild, to dark horse, to regular season champions is super satisfying.

Odds of winning: They’ve been neck and neck with Toronto all season, and I think they’ve got a lot to prove and the talent and drive to prove it. After a decisive 5-0 win against Toronto to close out their regular season as the top seed, the Whale have shown they can take on anyone and win, and they might just have the more complete team at the end of the day. They’re the ones to beat.

Follow them if: You like a good comeback story and a complete team effort, starting from the back and working its way out.

Toronto Six (#2 Seed)

Record: 16-3-1

Home Rink: Canlan Ice Sports, York, ON

Head Coach: Mark Joslin

Captain: Shiann Darkangelo

These are the newest kids on the block, but don’t let their short tenure in the PHF fool you: this team has been loud and strong in the postseason mix since their inception at the beginning of the 2021 season. Named for the six areas that make up the Greater Toronto Region, the Six run through them more than admirably. If you like offense, they have it in spades, starting with reigning MVP and Newcomer of the Year Mikyla Grant-Mentis (who has 30 points in 20 games and is in a great position to defend that title come season’s end).

Darkangelo, Emma Woods, Brooke Boquist, and Lindsay Eastwood round out a fast, physical, and absolutely formidable team which has an amazing home record and just four losses overall on the season. And before you think they’re all about the goals, let me reassure you – there are some strong defenders, Eastwood being one of them and joined by Saroya Tinker, Stephanie Sucharda, and Taylor Woods (no relation to Emma, but just as talented). Elaine Chuli followed up a stellar first season with an even stronger second campaign, recording a .930 save percentage and just one loss on the season (ironically at the hands of the Connecticut Whale).

Odds of winning: Equal to Connecticut’s, as far as I’m concerned. The best defense in a lot of ways is a great offense, and Grant-Mentis, Darkangelo et al aren’t done scoring just yet. Even if they don’t hoist Izzy at the end of the season, they will make it interesting – and again, you can’t count out the brick wall in Chuli.

Follow them if: Understated swag is your thing – while MGM likes her solid gold hardware, she keeps it mostly to the ice. Also, see Saroya Tinker, who is classic on and off the ice and isn’t afraid to use her voice and platform for the greatest good ever.

Boston Pride (#3 Seed)

Record: 10-5-5

Home Rink: Warrior Ice Arena, Brighton, MA

Head Coach: Paul Mara (a former Bolt!)

Captain: Jillian Dempsey

The defending Isobel Cup champions haven’t been able to really replicate their success from last season, only managing a middling record until now. Still, this team has a lot of experience together and a lot of experience with winning when and where it matters most. Their depth is excellent in all areas – Dempsey, Christina Putigna, and McKenna Brand are just the tip of a very large offensive iceberg, while Kaleigh Fratkin, Mallory Souliotis, Kali Flanagan, and Amanda Boulier excel on the blueline (while still able to take it to the net themselves).

Their zone defense is aggressive, and their offense has lots of speed and creativity. Meanwhile, Katie Burt has enjoyed an excellent season in net (7-2-0, .958 save percentage) while former Goalie of the Year Lovisa Selander has struggled a bit with injury and inconsistency.

Odds of winning: Decent. They’ve been here before, they’ve won it all, and they’ve kept a lot of the pieces in place from that 2021 Cup team. The big question mark will be if they can support the goalies in front of them offensively, particularly on special teams (they’ve got just 6 percent efficiency on the power play, good for dead last in the league).

Follow them if: You enjoy storied New England franchises with histories of success. Even though they’re not quite at their former glory, they’re skilled enough to go all the way.

Metropolitan Riveters (#4 Seed)

Record: 7-12-1

Home Rink: Barnabas Health Hockey House, Newark, NJ

Head Coach: Ivo Mocek

Captain: Madison Packer

Originally based in Brooklyn, then moving over to Newark after briefly partnering with the New Jersey Devils, the Riveters in many ways have dibs on some of the coolest merch in the game, which is probably what you’re going to notice first. What you’ll notice next is that this team is ready for anything and will put up a fight to get it. Veteran Packer heads a lineup of skilled rough-and-tumble forwards, while Kristen Barbara anchors a physical (if not fast) defense. They’re pretty well spread out in scoring, with players like Kendall Cornine, Theresa Knutson, and Emily Janiga joining Packer in the double digits in points. In net, Brooke Wolejko and Sonjia Shelly have split time and wins between them, with Wolejko getting the slight edge in save percentage at .915.

Odds of winning: If they can stay out of the penalty box and get one of their goalies hot at the right time, I think they’ve got an okay shot. The one weak spot might be the blueline, especially against super-fast and skilled teams like Toronto. Also, Shelly and Wolejko have been solid, but are beatable, especially off of a rush.

Follow them if: You like the color red and a team with a bit of edge in them.

Minnesota Whitecaps (#5 Seed)

Record: 6-13-1

Home Rink: TRIA Rink, St. Paul, MN

Head Coaches: Jack Brodt and Ronda Englehardt

Captain: Allie Thunstrom

This franchise predates the PHF, having been founded way back in 2004 as part of the now-defunct Western Women’s Hockey League before becoming an independent barnstorming team in the 2010s. They joined the league in 2018-19, becoming the only pro women’s hockey team to win both a Clarkson Cup and an Isobel Cup when they added the latter to their trophy case that same season. Unfortunately, they got off to a slow start this year, losing much of the depth they had had over the past couple of seasons.

Still, captain and reigning Fastest Skater Allie Thunstrom has lost none of her jump, and is joined by fellow speedster Jonna Curtis, Audra Morrison, Ashleigh Brykaliuk, and Taylor Turnquist when it comes to putting up the goals. The Whitecaps also have one of the best netminders in the league in Amanda Leveille, though she’s struggled with injury this season and hasn’t played since Feb. 5, where she backstopped the Whitecaps to an 8-1 rout of the Beauts. In her absence has been a bit of a revolving door, with Julie Friend, Jenna Brenneman, and most recently Breanna Blesi seeing minutes in net.

Odds of winning: Honestly? Not great. They can score, and they can definitely fight a close battle, but the holes are a little too big for me to put my faith in them to get back to the Final.

Follow them if: You like speed. Seriously, Thunstrom and Curtis can work absolute magic together on that top line. Also, like Boston, this is another club with lots of history and some of the most loyal vets in the league.

Buffalo Beauts

Record: 6-14-0

Home Rink: Northtown Center, Amherst, NY

Head Coach: Rhea Coad

Captains: Taylor Accursi, Marie-Jo Pelletier

Their on-ice record may have you fooled at first glance, but when this team is on, it is on. A lot of their strength is on the back end, where Carly Jackson has held firm between the pipes while sharing time with SDHL vet Lovisa Berndtsson. Second-year speedster Autumn Macdougall and offensive defender Dominique Kremer are a couple of the biggest scorers, with help from Accursi, Kennedy Ganser, Claudia Kepler, Cassidy Vinkle, and Emilie Harley among others.

Consistency has been much of the issue for the Beauts this season, but they’ve managed to hang with the best of the league for at least one game each series, so don’t count them out – especially as they’re coming off the heels of two major OT wins against their now-playoff opponents, the Pride. Moreover, they’ve added some big pieces throughout the season, most recently signing center Dana Trivigno to round out all four forward lines. Finally, this team has a loud and loyal following, evidenced by the eight Beauts who made it to the All-Star Game in January (including Jackson, Ganser, Vinkle, and Macdougall, who were all voted in by the fans).

Odds of winning: Better than expected, especially considering the newfound confidence they’ve managed to get heading into the season’s final weeks. If they can make it a sweep against the Pride, I can definitely see them playing spoiler to one of the top teams, or at least creating just a liiiiittle bit of drama.

Follow them if: You enjoy self-made social media stardom – Vinkle and Macdougall rule TikTok, while forward Amy Budde is a riot on Twitter. Also, CJ practically has her own photographer at this point; check out her Instagram for some thirst traps if you like charismatic goalies with sweet flow.

More information will be made available as puck drop comes closer on Friday. Until then, make sure you’re following @PHF on Twitter, and check out The Ice Garden while you’re at it – we’ve got all levels of women’s hockey, from PHF and PWHPA, to college, to international.