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Spooner embraces power forward role, net-front play to top of PWHL goal-scoring list

Toronto forward Natalie Spooner (24) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Minnesota during first period PWHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

TORONTO — Natalie Spooner is continuing to answer the call from head coach Troy Ryan, but this time in the Professional Women's Hockey League.

Spooner has embraced the power forward role to the tune of a PWHL-leading 10 goals through 11 games this season. The 33-year-old star has scored in all but one of Toronto's six wins.

"That's where she's the best," Ryan said of Spooner's net-front success after Tuesday's practice. "I challenged her a couple years ago to tell me where she could be the best in the world. We identify and she identifies that that's the area where she's the best.

"A lot of people think playing net front is just big and strong and trying to screen goalies. You need to have some pretty good skills to score in tight like that. But the bottom line is, she embraces it. She goes there because she wants to, not because she has to or because it's the right thing to do."

Good net-front play has long been something Ryan has preached to his team. For Spooner, that has dated back to when Ryan was hired as head coach of the Canadian women's national team in 2019.

"When Troy became our coach with Team Canada, he always harped on me on being a net-front presence," Spooner said Tuesday. "It started on the power play and then it became a regular game thing too — driving pucks to the net, being that power forward that was hard to play against.

"I think that I've had a lot of success with that and being able to now bring it into the league, I've just been trying to keep playing that way and it's been working."

The effort has been put in to hone those skills working alongside goalie coach Brad Kirkwood, who has helped shed light on nuances that give goaltenders difficulty.

"She's just one of those players who's pretty easy to coach, pretty easy to get along with, so she's never been difficult to convince," Ryan said. "Our job as coaches is just to help her with little tips and tricks. … She's just very smart."

Spooner had two goals in the first five games as the team struggled to start its inaugural season. However, Toronto is currently riding a four-game winning streak, with Spooner collecting eight points (seven goals, one assist) in the first three of those victories including a hat trick on Feb. 14.

During the international break in the middle of the PWHL streak, Spooner had six points (three goals, three assists) as Canada won three straight to win the Rivalry Series over the U.S.

She attributes her individual success to the rhythm of playing consistently.

"I guess for me, just starting to feel better," Spooner said. "I haven't played that many games and took a lot of time off the ice so just getting back into the swing of things with games.

"I think as a whole (with) our team, we just simplified things and got back to being above pucks, pressuring pucks and I think that gave our team a lot of success and a lot of offence and allowed me to capitalize on some of those opportunities."

Ryan has tinkered with different lines through much of the season, but especially in the midst of his team's tough start. One of those changes was having Spooner play alongside fellow linchpins Sarah Nurse and Emma Maltais on the top line.

The trio has shown solid chemistry and creating numerous scoring opportunities. 

Since Toronto's 1-4-0 start, the team has won five of its last six and scored 19 goals — tied with Minnesota for the league lead with one fewer game played. Spooner has nine points in that stretch, while Nurse (one goal, three assists) and Maltais (four assists) each have four. 

"I played with Sarah a few years on Toronto Furies (in the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League) so we got to know each other really well there," Spooner said. "Even on the national team, I've played with her at quite a few world championships so super comfortable with her.

"I never really played with Emma before but she's a little firecracker out there and works hard, and goes and retrieves pucks and is a great playmaker so she's a lot of fun to play with too."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2024.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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