The Women’s Hockey League at the Halfway Point
The Russian Women’s Hockey League, which we previewed here at the blog back in early September, has now reached the mid-way mark of its 2015-16 season. That being the case, it’s time to take a look and see how things have gone in the circuit’s first season under the control of the KHL. Below the jump, then, we will take a walk through each of the seven WHL teams, with some notes on how they are doing so far, and what might be expected of them in the second half of the season!
(A couple of quick notes: Teams are discussed in descending order of their current standings position. I’ve listed each team’s record after their name, in the format “Reg. Wins – OT/SO Wins – OT/SO Losses – Reg. Losses.” Like most if not all European leagues, the Women’s Hockey League uses the 3-2-1-0 points system.)
1. Agidel Ufa (10-1-0-1): The Bashkir club’s quest for its first national championship is going just fine, thank you; Agidel earned a split in their first pair of games against title rivals Tornado, and have their collective nose in front of the pack at the mid-point of the season. As expected, forward Olga Sosina, who arrived in the off-season from SKIF, has been the marquee player so far, leading the league in both goals (14) and points (31). The Ufa side has also enjoyed a fine first half from Slovak forward Nicol Čupková (12 gp, 13-6-19), and veteran Alexandra Kapustina has chipped in 15 points of her own from the blue line. Veteran international goalie Yulia Leskina, another new arrival at the team, has a save percentage of .913 (excellent, in context) and a GAA under two per game.
Agidel’s next four games are potentially tricky encounters with Biryusa and Dynamo, but if the Ufans can come through those unscathed, then the pair of games against Tornado in late February will likely decide the title.
2. Tornado Moscow Oblast (10-0-0-2): A surprising 2-1 loss to SKIF in October looms large for the defending champions at the moment, as it is the only thing keeping them from first place. Tornado have been relying heavily on their fearsome first line of Anna Shokhina (12 gp, 13-17-30), Alevtina Shtaryova (12 gp, 13-10-23), and Yelena Dergachyova (12 gp, 9-13-22) — the three have scored 35 of the 42 goals that Tornado’s forwards have provided this season, and are all in the top five in the league for points. Angelina Goncharenko leads the defense with nine points, just ahead of Nina Pirogova’s eight. The latter is definitely a player to note — Pirogova is a mainstay of the Russian U18 team, and played at the senior World Championship in 2015 despite being only 16 years old. Nadezhda Morozova has done all the goaltending so far for Tornado, and has a GAA of 2.00, third-best in the league.
Tornado need to avoid any further slip-ups against the teams below them; if they can manage that, then those two February meetings with Agidel will provide their opportunity to snatch away the title.
3. Dynamo St. Petersburg (7-1-0-4): If Agidel and Tornado look to have made the title race a two-team affair, there is still a good battle going on for third, and it is the St. Petersburg team that currently has the advantage in that one (Dynamo has won both games so far against fourth-place Biryusa, although they needed penalty shots in one of them). A big part of the reason is defender Anna Shchukina; the Russian national team regular leads all RWHL blue-liners in goals (nine) and points (18). That ties her with forward Yekaterina Smolina for the team lead in both categories as well. In goal, Mariya Sorokina and Anna Prugova, both well-known to followers of the Russian national team, have split the duties, and the former has the league’s best GAA at 1.83.
Dynamo’s hold on third place will likely be decided in mid-February when they play their second pair of games against Biryusa, but it is not impossible for them take points from the teams above them.
4. Biryusa Krasnoyarsk (6-0-2-4): Speaking of whom… While doubtless they would prefer to be ahead of Dynamo at this stage of the season, Biryusa can take some comfort in being the only team not named “Tornado” to have taken a point from league-leading Agidel, via a 4-3 shootout loss in September. The Siberian team’s ace is forward Valeriya Pavlova, now quite often to be found on the Russian national team’s top line. Pavlova’s line of 12 gp, 13-8-21 so far gives her more than twice as many goals and points as her closest team-mate. It also puts her sixth in the league for points, and in a tie for second in goals.
Like Dynamo, they are a hazardous encounter for any team in the league, and even the top two clubs need to be aware of them. Biryusa face Agidel next weekend, and if the Krasnoyarsk side can take points again, it will make the race for third even closer.
5. SKIF Nizhny Novgorod (4-0-1-7): SKIF were league champions in 2013-14, and champions of Europe last season, but those days seem far behind them at this point after Olga Sosina’s off-season move to Agidel had a predictable effect on their success. SKIF did earn some consolation by beating Tornado earlier this season, however. Svetlana Kolmykova and Finland’s Karoliina Rantamäki have shared most of the scoring duties this season (they are tied for the team lead with 17 points apiece). There is most definitely a “player to watch” tending goal for SKIF these days; Valeriya Tarakanova is another important piece of Russia’s Under-18 side, and was excellent in their bronze-medal World Championship performance last winter.
Of note: SKIF’s WHL team may not be enjoying the best of seasons, but their U18 side is a major force. The youngsters’ team, which features a number of players who do double-duty with the WHL side (including Tarakanova), are currently 6-0 in the national Under-18 championship, with a goals-for-&-against of 60-4.
6. Arktik Universitet Ukhta (2-1-0-9): This is a somewhat disappointing place in the standings to find the team from Ukhta, but we need to bear in mind that six of their nine losses have come by a single goal — with a smidge more luck they would be ahead of SKIF, at least. Unsurprisingly, it has been Fanuza Kadirova’s name appearing on the scoresheet the most for Arktik Universitet. Besides serving as captain of the Russian U18 team, she is third in the WHL for points, with a line of 12 gp, 12-15-27, and is +11 on a team that has a GF-GA of 37-49. Kadirova’s line-mates are enjoying good seasons as well; Karina Verkhovtseva has 14 points in 12 games, while Hungarian Alexandra Husak has 12 in eight contests after coming over early in the season from SKIF.
Kadirova goes for a skate, against Tornado no less (many thanks to Denis Osipchuk for the heads-up on this video).
If Arktik Universitet can find a way to turn around some of those one-goal losses, they may yet catch SKIF for fifth place. That, however, is likely as high in the standings as they can get this season.
7. SKSO Yekaterinburg (0-0-0-12): Given that record, and a GF-GA of 16-80, it is hard to find too much positive in SKSO’s season to date. However, we will try — SKSO are scoring slightly more, and conceding slightly fewer, than their predecessor WHL club in the region (Spartak-Merkury Yekaterinburg), from whom they inherited a number of players, so there has been some very mild improvement going on. Russia’s third-string goalie at the Sochi Olympics, Anna Vinogradova, has split the goaltending duties mostly with Yulia Sergeyeva (Yulia Chernyshova has also appeared briefly in the SKSO net). As for scoring, Oksana Afonina and Yekaterina Skorodumova are the team’s joint leaders with five points apiece.
The team did play two excellent games against Arktik Universitet in Ukhta in early September, losing by one and two goals, and their best chance of a victory this season would seem to be the return meetings the northerners next week.
The Women’s Hockey League season resumes next Sunday, the 29th (the game between Biryusa and Agidel, in Krasnoyarsk, actually starts at 11:30 pm ET on Saturday for fans in North America if I’ve got my numbers right). As a reminder, the league website is at whl.khl.ru, and it can also be followed on Twitter, Facebook, and vkontake. Thank you for reading!