The Russian Women’s Hockey League began its final on Friday, with regular season champion SKIF Nizhny Novgorod hosting KRS Vanke Rays at the start of a best-of-five series. And the Vanke Rays got off to a winning start in their bid to win the title for the second time in three years.

SKIF Nizhny Novgorod 1 KRS Vanke Rays 3 (0-2, 1-1, 0-0)

(Vanke Rays lead the series 1-0)

The rosters for the opening game of this final had a ‘Russia vs the Rest of the World’ look to them. It’s tempting to characterize the two teams as a largely home-grown SKIF roster boasting several players from the Russian national program, and a multi-national Vanke Rays team using a scattering of Chinese players to garnish a line-up built on top talents from both sides of the Atlantic.

However, a closer look shows that this assessment isn’t entirely accurate. In a league with few imports, SKIF’s Czech international defender Aneta Tejralova has been a huge success this season. She was the top-scoring blue liner in the regular season and has remained a potent threat during the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Vanke Rays judiciously added some young Russian talent to their roster early in the playoffs. This was partly because several players were away on international duty with team China, but the involvement of teenagers Alexandra Pyrkova and Maria Mikaelyan in today’s game suggests a growing willingness to work with some of the brightest youngsters in the Russian Women’s Hockey League.

In the first period, chance conversion was the key difference between the teams. KRS outshot SKIF 8-7, but garnered a 2-0 lead thank to its ability to make the most of the opportunities it created. That said, the opening goal had more to do with the home defense than the visiting forwards: a misplaced pass in the SKIF zone went straight to Michela Cava and the playoffs’ leading scorer set up Emma Nordin to make it 1-0 in the seventh minute. The Swede’s strike makes her the leading goalscorer in the 2022 post season.

The second goal showed more of what the Lady Dragons are all about. A long spell of possession in that SKIF zone had the home team creaking under the pressure. And, finally, the shooting lane opened up. A pass along the blue line saw Finnish defender Minttu Tuominen find her compatriot Anna Kilponen, whose point shot was too good for Valeria Merkusheva in the home net.

The middle frame was very different. After an even first 20 minutes, the Vanke Rays stepped up the pace in the second and dominated much of the play. A shot count of 22-7 highlighted the change in the balance of play and, without some spectacular play from Merkusheva in the SKIF net, the game would have been out of sight.

But hockey can be a paradoxical sport. SKIF was the first team to score in the second period, with Viktoria Kulishova producing a fine individual effort to beat Noora Raty and halve the deficit. However, KRS rebuilt its two-goal lead when Cava initially screened Merkusheva as Kilponen banged in another shot, then reacted smartly to pounce on the rebound and make it 3-1.

That gave the visitor an advantage it could defend in the third and, despite taking three penalties during a rocky spell midway through the session, the Dragons did just that. SKIF had its share of possession but struggled to get inside the Rays’ defense. With the home team limited to just five shots at Raty in the third period, there was little chance of a fightback and Igor Averkin’s hopes of withdrawing Merkusheva and launching a final surge evaporated when Alina Smurova took a penalty in the 59th minute.

The Vanke Rays take an early lead in the final series, while SKIF will hope to draw level when the teams meet again on Saturday.

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