Kazan (19:30 msk)
Omsk (16:30 msk)
Omsk (16:30 msk)
International women’s hockey has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Not only was last season’s World Championship cancelled, there have been few opportunities for international action this season. While the men’s game can call on significant sponsorship and large TV audiences, the women’s game is still growing. As a result, the costs of organizing the usual European tournaments make it unworkable in the current, difficult climate.
Instead, Team Russia decided to step up its preparations for the upcoming 2021 World Championship with two exhibition games against the KRS Vanke Rays. It provided a good advert for the women’s game, with the top team from Russia’s Women’s Hockey League taking on a roster comprised of the best home-grown talent in that competition. While Russia called on the country’s top domestic players, the Vanke Rays represent a veritable ‘Rest of the World’ roster with Olympians and World Champions from the USA, Canada, Finland, the Czech Republic and China.
Both games were hard fought. The first was decided by a shut-out performance from Russian goalie Valeriya Merkusheva – she also has two WHL shut-outs against the Rays this season – and a single goal from Dynamo Neva forward Polina Bolgareva. Game two finished 3-3 in regulation, with Team Russia opening a 2-0 lead, falling behind and salvaging the game thanks to Nina Pirogova’s goal 33 seconds before the hooter. Landysh Falyakhova potted the shoot-out winner.
Team Russia captain Olga Sosina was happy with her team’s work-out. “The Vanke Rays are an excellent opponent,” she said. “They have a skilled team, which plays attacking hockey and went at us from the get-go, finding the places where we weren’t ready and could make mistakes. But today we spent a lot of time in their zone and created chances. We couldn’t take enough of them and got his with three counterattacks. So we have things to work on.
“It’s a long time since we had any games for the national team, we haven’t been on the ice like this for ages. Unfortunately, there is no Eurotour this season, so these couple of games are our first try-out before the Worlds. I’m sure we’ll have some more warm-up games before the start of the tournament, and we’ll try to put our strongest game together.”
For KRS, currently preparing for a busy end to the regular season, these games were also an important opportunity to take on high quality opposition. Star forward Alex Carpenter added: “We’ve had a couple of weeks without any games, so these were good tests before the concluding games of the season,” she said. “We had a chance to work on our systems against strong opposition, get a look at our special teams and get ready for a difficult stretch in the season. We have 10 WHL games in a short space of time, then the playoffs.
“The results [against Russia] aren’t so important, but the games were very even.”
After that international action, KRS Vanke Rays will hope to be in top form for a frantic finish to the regular season. Brian Idalski’s team faces a gruelling schedule of 10 games in 19 days, starting with Monday’s home match-up against Dynamo Neva and finishing on Feb. 27 at Biryusa. Based on form alone, the Lady Dragons are out in front: despite playing four games less than their rivals, the girls are just two points behind league leader Agidel. But that packed schedule might change everything – especially with a trip to Ufa coming on Feb. 21 and 22.
The injury sustained by goalie Noora Raty in the first game against Russia might be a major blow: the Finnish international is regarded by many as the best in the world. But this is still a roster studded with quality, and the addition of Sam Hanson to the D-core – a move with its roots in her time playing under Idalski in North Dakota – gives more options to the team.
Agidel is the current leader of the championship. Last season the Ufa-based team topped the standings, only to lose in three games in the Grand Final against the Rays. That snapped a two-year champion run for this powerhouse of the women’s game. Led by the scoring power of Olga Sosina – Russia’s captain at the last Olympics and a veteran of 14 seasons in the domestic championship, Agidel is always a serious contender for honors. The team also boasts a rare import in the form of Nicol Cupkova, a Slovak forward who has 38 points this season.
This season has not gone smoothly for Agidel. The loss of forward Alena Mills to title rival KRS hurt, and in recent weeks the team has been hit by illness. That meant a roster of just 13 skaters for some games in January, but even with a short bench they went to the Vanke Rays and got a courageous 5-4 win.
A resurgent SKIF Nizhny Novgorod is in third place and also has genuine hopes of topping the table – and making a bid for the big prize in the playoffs. Currently level on points with the Vanke Rays, albeit from four games more, they have played all their games against the top two, picking up three wins and an overtime loss for their efforts.
Goalie Valeriya Merkusheva has been a breakout star this season. Her shut-out for team Russia in Friday’s game against the Vanke Rays was a repeat of a similar performance in a 1-0 victory in the WHL; she also blanked the free-scoring Chinese franchise through 60 minutes of last month’s meeting in Stupino, which ended with a 1-0 scoreline in overtime. Hard to score on, SKIF can certainly count itself a genuine contender for hardware this term.
Behind the three-way battle for the regular season title, there’s another big showdown between three more teams battling for the fourth playoff place. Currently, Dynamo Neva is in fourth place, one point clear of Biryusa. Tornado, third in last season’s standings, is still in with a chance but the Dmitrov-based team has to make up seven points on Dynamo and has played two games more.
Dynamo Neva’s progress this season has been impressive. The team joined the championship late, having hastily reassembled from the remains of Dynamo St. Petersburg. The original club was unable to continue for the current season. Despite starting late, Dynamo Neva showed what it was made of in its first games, twice taking high-flying SKIF to a shoot-out. Back-to-back wins over Tornado highlighted the quality of Evgeny Bobariko’s team and a 3-1 win over last year’s runner-up, Agidel, on Jan. 25 showed that Neva can mix it with the best. Polina Bolgareva, scorer of Russia’s winner in the first of the recent exhibitions games against KRS Vanke Rays, and Alsu Rakhimova lead the team in scoring with 18 points apiece from 20 games.
Matching Bolgareva point for point this season, Sofia Lifatova is emerging as a big scoring threat for Biryusa. This team, from the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, won bronze in the last two championships and there are high hopes that Lifatova, still only 17, can fire it to greater heights. The teenager has a good mentor in Valeriya Pavlova, a 25-year-old with extensive international experience including appearances at the 2018 Olympics. With games against SKIF and Vanke Rays to come, Biryusa has a tough run in, but head-to-head encounters at home to Dynamo on Feb. 22 and 23 give it every chance of making the top four once again.
Tornado, historically, is a force in Russian women’s hockey but this season has been hard work for the team from Dmitrov. Still mathematically in contention, it will take something special to get sufficient points from four upcoming games with Vanke Rays and Agidel in order to threaten the teams above.