A tense goaltending duel went the way of Noora Raty and the KRS Vanke Rays as the Russian Women’s Hockey League season came to its conclusion. The Dragons’ success seals a second title in three seasons for the Chinese franchise, while SKIF can take some consolation from a greatly improved season after falling at the final hurdle.

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

(KRS wins the WHL final 3-0)

For the second time in three seasons, the KRS Vanke Rays are the Russian Women’s Hockey League champions. A shoot-out victory over SKIF in game three sealed a sweep of the final series on a day dominated by great goaltending.

Through 70 minutes of nail-biting hockey, Noora Raty and Valeria Merkusheva allowed just one goal each – both coming from wicked deflections. Between them, the goalies had 71 saves before the action moved on to a shoot-out.

But when it came to penalty shots, the home team had the edge. Raty was unbeatable, while at the other end Susanna Tapani, Hannah Miller and Michela Cava all found the target to give the Dragons the verdict.

Prior to the game, the home team got a boost with the return of influential forward Michelle Karvinen. She had not previously featured in this final due to injury and her presence brought additional verve to the home offense.

That was apparent from the opening moments. Inside 30 seconds there were chances for Susanna Tapani and Merkusheva, rotated back into SKIF’s starting line-up after Valeria Tarakanova played the previous game, had to be alert from the very start.

However, the visitor survived that early storm and steadily found its way into the game. By the end of the first period, there was little to choose between the teams and Alyona Starovoitova was instrumental in conjuring several big chances for SKIF to take the lead. Noora Raty in the home net – who has yet to taste defeat in a WHL final game either this season or in 2020 – remained in control.

The second period saw Merkusheva pull off some more big saves, shrugging aside a Michela Cava shot as space opened up in front of the net, then thwarting Tapani on the power play.

The breakthrough came late in the second stanza when the Dragons snatched a short-handed goal. Karvinen chased a lost cause behind the SKIF net and managed to get the puck away from Aneta Tejralova. Her pass to the slot found Hannah Miller arriving late on the play and her deflected shot wrong-footed Merkusheva and slid under the goalie’s pads. It wasn’t the prettiest play of the game, but it went a long way towards deciding the destiny of this year’s championship.

Hurt by a deflected goal late in the second period, SKIF responded thanks to a bounce in its favor at the start of the third. Another SKIF power play was winding down when Tejralova’s charge into the danger zone saw the puck skitter across the sot and drop for Viktoria Kulishova at the back door. Hurried, she struggled to steer a shot towards the open corner of the net, but a deflection off Anna Kilponen beat Raty and tied the game.

Almost immediately there was another power play for SKIF, but this time there was no scoring at either end.

There were chances for KRS to win it in the third. Karvinen was played in behind the SKIF defense, but Merkusheva was quickly off her line and the Finnish forward could not lift the puck over the goalie’s pads. However, the closing stages saw some of the intensity drop out of both teams’ attacking play. Perhaps sensing overtime was near, the players became more cautious and not even a KRS power play in the final two minutes could force the issue.

Instead, it took a shoot-out to decide the game and the destiny of the newly-forged WHL trophy. After three seasons in the league, KRS Vanke Rays now has two titles and one runner-up spot.

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