The WHL final gets underway in Nizhny Novgorod on Friday, with KRS Vanke Rays back for its third successive appearance in the decisive series. This time, SKIF provides the opposition for the Chinese franchise, with the Nizhny Novgorod team making its first appearance in a playoff final.

Old vs new

Don’t fooled by that last stat – there’s nothing new about SKIF winning trophies. Quite the contrary: SKIF is one of the oldest women’s teams in Russia, formed in Moscow in 2000 and winning five national titles in six years before relocating to Nizhny Novgorod. In its new home, the team added three more trophies but, as women’s hockey grows and the league becomes more competitive, this seasoned challenger has found it tough to stay at the top. This year, led by the prolific Landysh Falyakhova and Alena Starovoitova, the team came first in the regular season and now has its sights firmly on a first gold medal since 2014.

The Vanke Rays have a different story. Since joining the league three seasons ago, they’ve never failed to reach the grand final. In their rookie year, the Lady Dragons won the title, sweeping Agidel in three games despite being forced to play the whole post season on the road due to the early days of the pandemic and China’s lockdown. Last term, Agidel got its revenge in a rearranged showdown: a Covid outbreak in Ufa meant the games could not be played until early September, after the similarly delayed Women’s World Championship had taken place. KRS played this season with two different rosters, starting with a team comprised solely of Chinese Olympic prospects before welcoming back a galaxy of international stars at the end of February. Despite that disruption, Brian Idalski steered his team to second place in the regular standings.

The path to the final

SKIF had little difficulty in advancing through the playoffs: the regular season champ did not drop a game as it overcame Beliye Medveditsy from Chelyabinsk and Dynamo Neva from Petersburg. Starovoitova, the team’s leading goalscorer in regular season, grabbed game-winners in the first three of those games, and a hat-trick from Falyakhova sealed a 5-4 win to settled the semi-final against Dynamo. Falyakhova’s nine playoff tallies make her the leading post season goalscorer.

The Vanke Rays again had to contend with the demands of Team China and the WHL. The start of the playoffs coincided with China’s successful World Championship Division IB campaign, robbing Idalski’s team of a clutch of players, including captain Yu Baiwei and one of its Olympic stars, Mi Le (Hannah Miller). In the first-round series against 7.62, there were sometimes only four defenders available, but the offensive power generated by the likes of Michelle Karvinen, Emma Nordin and Michela Cava was too much for a youthful opponent.

In the semi-final against Tornado, the Rays dropped the first game 2-3 as the international contingent flew home from Poland, but rallied to win 5-2 and 4-1 on home ice and set up this week’s showdown.

Rays’ Record loss

The teams last met in the final two games of the regular season, playing back-to-back in Nizhny Novgorod. And SKIF’s 6-0 victory on the final day is the heaviest loss suffered by KRS in its three seasons of WHL hockey.

However, as forward Michelle Karvinen told the WHL website, that loss is very much in the past. “We weren’t on our game that day,” she admitted. “But we showed what we could do in the first game when we won 3-0. I’m not too worried about that loss, it was the last game of the season and there wasn’t much riding on it.

“It’s not OK that we finished with that kind of scoreline but we shouldn’t dwell on it. We need to go out and play our game.”

For SKIF, meanwhile, the hope is that starting the series on home ice can give the team a vital boost as it seeks a first title since 2014.

“I hope that starting at home will help,” said defender Ekaterina Ananina. “We get tired of always traveling here and there, it drains a lot of energy. It’s much better at home: your friends and family are with you, it’s your ice.”

The schedule

It’s a best-of-five final, starting with two games in Nizhny Novgorod on April 22 (1630 local time) and 23 (1300 local time). Game three follows in Mytishchi on April 26 (1400). If necessary, game four will follow on home ice 24 hours later, and a potential series decider is pencilled in for the Nagorny Arena on April 30 (1200).

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