Team Russia at the Women’s Worlds
The Women’s World Championships are here! The 2016 edition of the tournament opens today in Kamloops, British Columbia, and the Russian team will be looking to go at least one better than last year’s fourth-place finish. Read on, and we will take a look at the team that coach Mikhail Chekanov has assembled to accomplish that task.
Russia is in Group A at this World Championship, guaranteeing at least a spot in the quarter-finals (and no worries about relegation). The top two in the group, which also includes Canada, the USA, and Finland, get byes to the semi-finals, while the others get quarter-final matchups against the top two teams in Group B (Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, and the Czech Republic). The bottom two in Group B will meet to decide who gets relegated from the top division of women’s hockey.
Adding to the excitement this time around is the fact that the 2016 Championship also serves as a qualification tournament for the 2018 Olympic Games. Hosts South Korea are already in, and another five teams will join them after this tournament (the final two spots will be determined in 2017). For Russia, the arithmetic is quite simple: reach the semi-finals and they’re in. Failing that, things get a bit complicated, and the prospect of needing one of the qualification tournaments becomes a real one.
Here then is a quick look at the Russian roster, with some thoughts about possible line combinations. There is a lot of uncertainty, of course; we have only a few practice sessions and a single exhibition game against Switzerland on Saturday (Russia won it 4-2) on which to judge things. However, there are some interesting clues to be seen!
- Nadezhda Morozova (Biryusa Krasnoyarsk)
- Anna Prugova (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
- Mariya Sorokina (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
Major changes at the goaltending position from last year, as only Sorokina returns from the 2015 crew. Morozova is making her World Championship debut, while Prugova missed out last year due to injury. Morozova got the start against Switzerland on Saturday, but Chekanov used all three of his netminders almost evenly in 2015 (Yulia Leskina and Valeriya Tarakanova joined Sorokina on that team); it is entirely possible that he do likewise again.
- Angelina Goncharenko (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
- Alexandra Kapustina (Agidel Ufa)
- Yekaterina Nikolayeva (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
- Nina Pirogova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
- Anna Shchukina (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
- Anna Shibanova (Agidel Ufa)
Coach Chekanov has taken a bit of a risk here, bringing only six blueliners to Kamloops; if injuries strike, it will pose a real problem. That said, this is a very interesting group; they were the top six scoring defenders in the Women’s Hockey League this past season. Included is 17-year-old Pirogova, who despite her youth is making her second appearance at the Worlds, and should be one of the faces of Russian women’s hockey for years to come. In practice and against Switzerland Pirogova was paired with Shibanova, rather than with her club team-mate Angelina Goncharenko.
As for the other defence match-ups, Goncharenko has seen time alongside team Captain Shchukina, and that will likely be Russia’s most powerful pairing (the veteran Shchukina led WHL defenders with a scoring line of 24 gp, 14-15-29 in 2015-16). World Championship rookie Nikolayeva has been paired with Kapustina.
It is interesting that Chekanov has chosen (so far) not to pair up club team-mates in his defence corps. However, no matter the pairings, this is a group that can score goals. Staying healthy, as noted, will be very key.
- Lyudmila Belyakova (New York Riveters)
- Tatyana Burina (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
- Yelena Dergachyova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
- Iya Gavrilova (University of Calgary)
- Fanuza Kadirova (Arktik-Universitet Ukhta)
- Yelena Mitrofanova (Agidel Ufa)
- Valeriya Pavlova (Biryusa Krasnoyarsk)
- Alevtina Shtaryova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
- Yelena Silina (SKIF Nizhegorod Oblast)
- Galina Skiba (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
- Yekaterina Smolentseva (Connecticut Whale)
- Yekaterina Smolina (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
- Olga Sosina (Agidel Ufa)
- Alexandra Vafina (University of Calgary)
It is a little bit difficult to judge the forward lines for Team Russia due to the fact that Belyakova, one the four North-American-based players, was held up by visa issues and joined the team late. She will certainly slot in somewhere after a decent first season with the NWHL’s New York Riveters (17 gp, 6-5-11, and she brings a certain physicality to the game as well). However, bearing in mind the need to include Belyakova, here’s what we’ve seen so far:
- Chekanov has chosen to keep Gavrilova and Vafina, the two University of Calgary players, together, with Smolentseva as the third to make that an all-North-American-based line. It makes sense; Gavrilova spent the season shredding Canadian university competition (28 gp, 20-23-43), and Vafina was not far behind her (28 gp, 14-21-35). Smolentseva, a veteran of four Olympics and seven World Championships (this is her eighth), scored 8 points in 16 games for Connecticut this season. This should be Russia’s top line, and if kept intact it can pose a threat to any team.
- The “second” line brings together Sosina — first in points and second in goals in the WHL this season — with Pavlova, who was third in goals, so this is another group that can find the net. The under-rated Burina, in her eleventh World Championship to go along with four Olympics, has been the third member of this line so far.
- Against Switzerland, Chekanov trotted out a sort of “young guns” line, with Under-18 team Captain Kadirova alongside Shtaryova, the WHL’s top goal-scorer with 29 in 24 games. Shtaryova’s line-mate at Tornado, Yelena Dergachyova, has been the third player on the line, and at 20 years old is the veteran of the trio.
- In that exhibition game, although there was some movement among the lines, we saw Mitrofanova alongside Silina and Smolina, with Skiba serving as an extra forward in that case. It is not impossible that Skiba, a smart, veteran, player with more than decade of national team experience, could fill in on defense if the need arises.
The name missing here is that of Anna Shokhina, whose 51 points in 24 games in the WHL this season trailed only Sosina. It would have been great fun to see the Tornado line of Shokhina, Shtaryova, and Dergachyova on the world stage, but injury intervened, and it was not to be. Another year, hopefully.
For Russia, the goal is a medal, either bronze or — dare to dream — something better. Should that not be achieved, qualification for the 2018 Olympics will be a nice consolation prize. The journey begins later on today, at 3:30 Kamloops time, when the Russians face Finland. The host Canadians will be the opponents on Tuesday, followed by the United States on Thursday to close out the group stage.
Full news notes here tomorrow, including a re-cap of Russia’s first two games at the Worlds — thank you for reading!