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PWHL Minnesota wins first-ever Walter Cup championship

                                Team King forward Kendall Coyne Schofield (26) celebrates her goal against Team Kloss goaltender Nicole Hensley (29) during the PWHL 3-on-3 Showcase during NHL All-Star Thursday at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 1.
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Team King forward Kendall Coyne Schofield (26) celebrates her goal against Team Kloss goaltender Nicole Hensley (29) during the PWHL 3-on-3 Showcase during NHL All-Star Thursday at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 1.

LOWELL, Mass. >> The first-ever PWHL Finals could not have ended in a better fashion: with Minnesota captain Kendall Coyne Schofield scoring the empty-net goal to seal the championship.

“There’s so much about this day that she deserves,” said Minnesota goalie Nicole Hensley. “She has obviously done so much for this sport and for this professional league. It’s completely fitting that she’s the first one to touch the Walter Cup.”

Coyne Schofield — a key figure in the creation of the PWHL — hoisted the Walter Cup after her team downed Boston 3-0 in Game 5 of the PWHL Finals on Wednesday night. Mark Walter, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and now the PWHL’s sole investor, presented the trophy to Coyne Schofield and — per the captain’s request — helped her lift it.

“I asked Mark to hold it with me for a second,” she said on the ice after the game. “It was cool to be able to hold that alongside him.”

Now, Coyne Schofield and PWHL Minnesota have made league history as the first team to win the Walter Cup, the 35-pound league trophy designed and crafted by luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co.

“This would not end any other way,” forward Liz Schepers told The Athletic after the game. “She’s the reason we’re all here. She’s just a massive inspiration for our team and the whole sport.”

Schepers, a Minnesota native, scored her first PWHL goal just over six minutes into the second period, which would prove to be the championship-winner. General Manager Natalie Darwitz said Schepers’ line with Claire Butorac and Sophia Kunin had been one of their best in the playoffs and it was fitting — and good timing — for Schepers to score her first career goal.

“You look at the balanced scoring that we got through every line, all of our D, I mean, it took everyone,” said Coyne Schofield. “That’s what it takes to win a championship. And I think that’s why we were able to rise to this occasion tonight.”

Michela Cava doubled the lead in the third period with her fourth goal of the PWHL Finals to put the game out of reach for a Boston team that struggled to generate offense when it mattered most.

That the score was so close was a credit to Boston goalie Aerin Frankel, who made 41 saves on 43 shots, while her team only mustered 17 on goal and three in the third period. Minnesota did an excellent job stifling the Boston offense and keeping most of the chances to the perimeter.

While Hensley wasn’t tested often, she was solid stopping all 17 shots she faced for her third victory and second shutout since taking the starters’ crease back in Game 2 of the series.

Minnesota won the best-of-five series 3-2 after thinking they’d won it back on home ice at the Xcel Energy Center — at least for a few minutes before Sophie Jaques’ double-overtime goal was called back due to goaltender interference. Alina Müller scored to force a fifth and final game in dramatic fashion, but Minnesota still came out on top.

“I just think to have something so good taken away, like last game, I just think we knew we had to have it,” said Taylor Heise. “Like that feeling (of winning) — you had it and you want it back.”

Heise — the first-ever PWHL draft pick — was named the first-ever Ilana Kloss Playoffs MVP. She scored the series-winner in the semifinals and led the playoffs in goals (5) and points (8).

The Walter Cup, she said, felt heavy after not doing any upper-body workouts in a while. “That was a curl for the girls right there,” she laughed.

Minnesota entered the playoffs as the lowest seed (4) and on a five-game losing skid to end the regular season. The team was on the brink of elimination against Toronto, which got out to a 2-0 series lead, but won three-straight games to advance to the Finals and upset the top-ranked team in the league.

“It’s honestly hard to put into words,” said Coyne Schofield. “A lot of people counted us out. As soon as we got in, we never looked back. There were times we were down, but we weren’t out. Some people may have counted us out, but we believed in us, the entire way.”

It’s fitting that Coyne Schofield won the Walter Cup at the Tsongas Center, considering it was the arena where she made her comeback to hockey after giving birth to her son, Drew, less than 11 months ago. It was well past his bedtime, but Drew was on the ice with his parents and got placed in the Cup.

“What it took just to come back and be ready to go. January 3, it was me and him because my husband was still playing football and I took a picture with him right here and I said Mommy’s going to play in her first professional hockey game,” Coyne Schofield said. “For that to be my first game, and now the last in the same spot as champions. It’s been an emotional year for sure. And I’m just so thankful that Mark and Kimbra believed in us.”

It was also Coyne Schofield who made the phone call to the legendary Billie Jean King six years ago to ask for help with the state of professional women’s hockey. As King told a small group of gathered media on Sunday, she and Kloss met with the three-time Olympian and said they’d try to help.

They did, by getting Walter involved.

“It took us a few years,” King said. “When Mark told us yes, it was a huge day for us. And we knew then (the league) had a chance to not only survive, but to really make it in a big way.”

King and Kloss are now members of the league’s advisory board and have the regular season and playoff MVP trophies named after them. When King thought about what it would be like to see Coyne Schofield among the first players ever to win the Walter Cup she said, “It couldn’t be more perfect.”

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.

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