Biryusa faced a battle to even make the playoffs, securing its place in the final a week before the end of the regular when it won back-to-back against Dynamo Neva. That ended the Petersburg team’s hopes of making the top four and ensured that when the Vanke Rays came visiting on Friday and Saturday, it was a dress rehearsal for the playoffs.
However, beating the defending champion is a daunting task. The Dragons lost just out of 26 regular season games this season and extended its winning streak to 17 with back-to-back successes in Krasnoyarsk (7-1 and 5-2). All over the ice, the Chinese franchise has leaders: Alex Carpenter, supreme scoring leader for the second season in a row, Megan Bozek outscoring the WHL’s other blueliners, Kimberly Newell leading the league in all key goaltending stats.
So, does Biryusa have any chance? Forward Ekaterina Dobrodeyeva believes it can be done.
“We need to go into each game with a huge desire to win,” Ekaterina Dobrodeyeva told the WHL’s official website. “The whole team has to be on board with that. The first task is to clamp down on defense and make sure they don’t get a good look at our net. And then we need to take the chances that will come our way.
“Vanke Rays has a good budget, they can sign up talented players. They have a strong team where everyone complements each other. But we are not afraid of them. We’re not just going to give up.”
The stats offer some grounds for optimism as well. Young goalie Darya Gredzen had six shut-outs last season — tied with Newell for the league leadership. Aged just 16, she’s one for the future, but her performances in 2020-2021 suggest she is already capable of making an impact at the top level. Then there is Dobrodeyeva’s line. With 40 goals this season, her partnership with Sofia Lifatova and Valeria Pavlova is the most productive troika in the WHL. That even beats Carpenter’s formidable partnership with Rachel Llanes and Hannah Miller for KRS. It will take every piece of that firepower to upset the odds.
Unusually, despite being the lower-ranked team in the regular season, Biryusa will play the first two games of this series on home ice. Krasnoyarsk hosts games one and two on Wednesday and Thursday, with a third game pencilled in for March 7 in Stupino if required.
Agidel, for so long the dominant force in the WHL, suffered a turbulent season. Back in the summer, rumors swirled around Ufa and suggested that the team’s finances might be in jeopardy. Happily, that proved wholly untrue, but the uncertainty might have affected the team’s preparations for the season. Certainly, the opening games saw SKIF travel to Bashkortostan and pick up back-to-back wins.
That set the tone for a battle between the two teams that continued all season. In the final standings, they were locked on 60 points and Agidel secured second place by virtue of grabbing more wins in regulation. The Ufa team also scored significantly more goals — 127 against 83 — thanks in no small part to the ageless Olga Sosina. Prior to this season, she was the only WHL player to win back-to-back scoring races; this term she contributed 50 (18+32) points in 27 appearances. With Nicol Cupkova close behind, and Anna Shibanova the second most productive on defense, there is plenty of back-up for Sosina as well.
However, the last two games of the season ended in heavy losses at home to KRS Vanke Rays — and left head coach Denis Afinogenov admitting his team looked flat in its most recent outings.
“There wasn’t much motivation,” Denis Afinogenov said. “We could not finish higher in the table, nor drop any lower, so we wanted to give some of our youngsters a chance to play before the playoffs.” However, he expects more in post season. “We have an ambitious group of girls here, they don’t want to lose and they were disappointed [with the KRS games],” he added. “We need to get to the final and give [KRS] a real game there.”
SKIF, meanwhile, owes a great deal to Valeria Merkusheva. The 21-year-old goalie was instrumental in her team allowing just 37 goals in its 28 games, a superb performance bettered only by KRS. Her move to Nizhny Novgorod in the summer was a key factor in the team bouncing back from last season’s failure to make the playoffs. Merkusheva was not the only player to swap Dynamo St. Petersburg for SKIF: Czech defender Aneta Tejralova also made the switch and played a big role in that stellar defense for SKIF.
The final games of the season brought comfortable victories over one of the WHL’s newcomers, 7.62, and left SKIF captain Angelina Goncharenko plotting Agidel’s downfall.
“Those wins were important, psychologically,” Angelina Goncharenko told the club’s website. “Everybody wants to go into the playoffs in the right frame of mind, full of confidence.
“If we are united, we can beat Agidel. In modern hockey, everyone can play but that’s only part of it. A winning team needs to be a tight unit that closely follows the coach’s instructions. If — and only if — we can do that, everything is sure to work out for us.”
Game one of this series takes place on Wednesday in Nizhny Novgorod. Game two and, if necessary, game three, will be in Ufa on Saturday, March 6 and Sunday, March 7.