The WHL’s All-Star game takes place in Chelyabinsk on Dec. 4. It’s part of a week of All-Star action, which also includes the Junior Hockey League’s Challenge Cup and culminates with the KHL’s weekend of festivities.
This will be the fifth women’s All-Star event, and 34 players representing all nine teams in the league will take part. Seven of them – Maria Batalova, Liana Ganeyeva, Fanuza Kadirova, Valeria Merkusheva, Olga Sosina, Anna Shibanova and Anna Shokhina – are poised to appear in their fifth All-Star Game. Meanwhile, 14 players will feature for the first time. Among the debutants, Zhao Zenan of KRS Shenzhen becomes the first Chinese-born player to be selected.
Agidel Ufa has historically been one of the strongest teams in the WHL. Under head coach Denis Afinogenov, the club won three titles and was three times a runner-up. Last season, though, Ufa failed to reach the final and Afinogenov left the club. This season, Agidel has been in imperious form. A 14-game winning streak equalled a club record and put the team out in front at the top of the standings. It took a shoot-out loss at Tornado to end that streak, but Agidel still has a seven-point lead over second-placed Biryusa Krasnoyarsk.
KRS Shenzhen, previously known as KRS Vanke Rays, won two titles in its first three seasons in the league. The club, created to nurture talent for China’s national program, underwent big changes in the summer. Head coach Brian Idalski left, replaced by Scott Spencer. At the same time, many of the high profile imports – especially those from leading European nations – also moved on. A new-look roster, with an ever greater emphasis on native Chinese talent, struggled in the first weeks of the season. Since then, though, things have improved. A win over high-flying Dynamo Neva broke the drought and now the Dragons are just one point outside of the playoff places.
Last season’s leading scorer, Anna Shokhina, is out in front again. The Tornado Dmitrov forward, now 25, has 35 (12+23) points from 16 games so far. Impressively, Shokhina has been involved in well over half her team’s 58 goals this season. Tornado is currently fourth in the standings, a point clear of KRS Shenzhen, the team that defeated it in last year’s grand final. However, Tornado has five games in hand on its closest chaser.
Last season, eight teams from nine qualified for the playoffs. While this gave the WHL its first ever three-round post season, it also meant that parts of the regular season were somewhat pedestrian. This year, only four from nine will get a place in the final stages. Suddenly, the race for a playoff place is far more intense. If Agidel and Biryusa look to be fairly certain of getting there, the remaining spots are very much up for grabs. Just nine points – three wins – separate third placed Dynamo Neva from Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod down in sixth. Chelyabinsk’s Beliye Medveditsy may feel they, too still have hopes of qualification – especially with Denis Afinogenov taking over as head coach there this week. It all adds up to more meaningful hockey, and more exciting games for everyone.
SKIF Nizhny Novgorod has long been a top name in Russian women’s hockey. This season, though, the team has a new identity. After partnering with the KHL’s Torpedo, the women’s team adopted the same name as the men. It adds to the ties between men’s and women’s teams: Torpedo joins Agidel Ufa, KRS Shenzhen and Beliye Medveditsy Chelyabinsk in having a formal link with a KHL organization. Meanwhile, in Krasnoyarsk, the success of Biryusa has seen the Siberian team start playing its games at the city’s Platinum Arena, shared with VHL team Sokol. With a higher profile and increased crowds for women’s hockey, the future is bright for the whole league.