It’s the biggest playoff in Russian Women’s Hockey League history, with eight teams ready to compete for the top prize. The action gets underway on Wednesday, and offers a rundown of all the key stories from the regular season.

SKIF tops regular season table

SKIF Nizhny Novgorod is one of the traditional power houses of women’s hockey in Russia – and this season it’s back at its best.

Since the club was founded in Moscow in 2000 it has won eight championships, and before that its precursors, Luzhniki, VVS and Viking had a further four top spots. However, since 2014 SKIF has not finished top of the table until now. As such, Igor Averkin’s team is well placed to claim its first ever title since playoffs were introduced.

Success stems from a rock-solid defense. In 36 games, SKIF allowed just 45 goals. That helped the Nizhny Novgorod team celebrate 31 wins in those five games, finishing nine points clear of second-placed KRS Vanke Rays. To cap a fine season, the top two met in the final game and SKIF handed the Dragons a 6-0 thrashing – the heaviest loss the Chinese franchise has suffered since joining the league.

Not surprisingly, SKIF’s goaltending has been exceptional. Valeria Merkusheva and Valeria Tarakanova have shared the workload, with Tarakanova posting league leading figures for GAA (1.14) and SV% (95.4). Merkusheva was right behind her, with 1.53 and 93.5, ranking third in the league. Both goalies are young – 23 and 22 respectively – and Merkusheva was part of the Russian team at the Beijing Olympics. There’s a bright future here.

The team’s scoring was well distributed. Landysh Falyakhova led the way with 49 (14+35) points, ahead of Czech defender Aneta Tejralova on 46 (10+36). Tejralova was the most productive blue liner in the league. Alyona Starovoitova was the lead goalscorer with 22, and 21-year-old Oxana Bratishcheva enjoyed her best season to date with 41 (16+25) points.

Vanke Rays battle on two fronts

Second place went to KRS Vanke Rays, buoyed by a 14-game winning streak that ended only on the final day of the season. For Brian Idalski’s Dragons, this was a unique campaign. Up until the New Year, his roster was drawn exclusively from players eligible to represent China at the Beijing Olympics. As a result, the Rays sacrificed some effectiveness in the league, and dropped into mid table.

However, the experience of top-level hockey in the WHL clearly helped China at the Games. The Lady Dragons proved highly competitive in Group B, defeating Denmark and Japan and narrowly missing out on a quarter-final spot after losing to Sweden in a de facto playoff eliminator.

After that, many of the KRS imports came back, and the likes of Michela Cava, Michelle Karvinen, Minttu Tuominen and Noora Raty played a huge role in pushing the Chinese franchise up the table. This team has won gold and silver in its first two seasons in the league and will expect to be involved in a third successive final this term.

Defending champion scores freely

Agidel won last year’s title in dramatic fashion, snatching the trophy from KRS Vanke Rays in a shoot-out in the decisive game. This year, the Ufa club finished third in the standings, but was the leading scorer in the league with 171 goals. Olga Sosina played a big role in that, and her 51 (25+26) points took her career tally to 401. That makes her only the second player in WHL history to clear 400 points.

The three-time champion also enjoys solid goaltending, with Anna Prugova and Maria Sorokina both performing strongly. Sorokina hit the headlines on the final day of the season when she made a stop with her bare hands after losing her glove in a game against Tornado.

Goaltending could be a big issue in Agidel’s playoff campaign. The first round pits Denis Afinogenov’s team against Dynamo Neva, with Russian international Diana Farkhutdinova between the piping. The Petersburg club was coached by Evgeny Bobariko for most of the season, but the Team Russia head coach left on March 1 to be replaced by Alexei Kusakin. It remains to be seen how that will affect Dynamo in post season, but with the likes of internationals Alexandra Vafina, Polina Bolgareva and Fanuza Kadirova providing the fire power, this match-up could be a classic.

Shokhina leads the scoring race

The leading individual performers represented Tornado, with Anna Shokhina in inspired form for the Dmitrov-based club. She had an incredible 83 (31+52) points and was involved in well over half of the 143 goals her team scored as it finished fifth in the regular season. Team-mate Elena Dergachyova was second in the scoring race with 56 (14+42) points.

In the playoffs, Shokhina will be up against one of the brightest young goalies in Russia. Biryusa’s Darya Grezden, 17, has been so impressive in the past two seasons that she got a call-up to the Olympics. At the other end of the ice, Valeria Pavlova’s 31 goals make her the leading sniper in the league this season. After finishing fourth, the Krasnoyarsk-based team will hope to get past Tornado and record its first ever victory in a playoff series, having lost in the first round on its previous three appearances.

Playoff debutants

The 2021-2022 season brings an eight-team playoff for the first time in the league’s history. And that means this week’s post season action will feature two teams making their first appearance at this stage. Moscow Region’s 7.62, based in the hockey heartland of Voskresensk, is in its second season in the competition. The club’s ethos is all about developing young players, which makes for some tough challenges against the WHL’s top teams. But despite an inexperienced roster, this season has brought powerful performances from top prospects such as 16-year-old forward Alexandra Nesterova and 19-year-old goalie Anna Alpatova as head coach Alexander Sytsov steered the team to seventh place and a first-round contest against KRS Vanke Rays.

The final playoff berth was decided on the final day of the season, with Beliye Medveditsy (Polar Bears) from Chelyabinsk beating SKSO Yekaterinburg to eighth place. This is a newly formed team, backed by the KHL’s Traktor and coached by Igor Znarok, brother of three-time Gagarin Cup winner Oleg. The success was backstopped by goalie Milena Tretyak (no relation to legendary Soviet netminder Vladislav, the spelling is slightly different) who joined the newly-formed team from KRS Vanke Rays and rose magnificently to the challenge of swapping a title contender for an outsider. The next test will be a big one, though, as Chelyabinsk faces a best-of-three first round series against SKIF.

Playoff schedule

The first round of the playoffs is a best-of-three series. The lower seeded team begins with home ice advantage on Wednesday, April 6. Then on Saturday, April 9, the action moves to the higher-ranked team for game two. Game three, where necessary, will be played on Sunday, April 10.

The opening round pairings are as follows:

SKIF Nizhny Novgorod (1) vs Beliye Medveditsy Chelyabinsk (8)
KRS Vanke Rays (2) vs 7.62 Moscow Region (7)
Agidel Ufa (3) vs Dynamo Neva (6)
Biryusa Krasnoyarsk (4) vs Tornado Dmitrov (5)

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