Women’s Hockey Update: Oct. 4, 2016
With the most recent set of international games now in the rear-view mirror, the focus of Russian women’s hockey returned to league play this week. That news, plus a recap of the end of the national team’s visit to the NWHL is ahead, so read on!
Before we get to the Women’s Hockey League, however, the Russian national team had one last bit of business to take care of in the United States, namely the fifth game of their NWHL tour. The opposition last Thursday was the Connecticut Whale, who two days earlier had downed the Russians 3-2 thanks to a late pair of goals to leave the visitors with a tour record of 1-3 coming in.
As they had in the previous meeting between the two teams, Russia came out firing in this one, and the game was not yet half a minute old when Lyudmila Belyakova had the puck in the net to make it 1-0. Later in the first period, Fanuza Kadirova sprang Katya Smolentseva on a breakaway, and the former Connecticut player beat Whale goalie Nicole Stock to double the advantage. The Whale pulled one back early in the second through Kelli Stack, but as the middle frame drew to a close defender Angelina Goncharenko fired a power-play point shot into the top corner, and Team Russia took a 3-1 lead in the final 20 minutes.
It was a nervous finish. Tempers frayed late in the game; a goalmouth post-whistle exchange of opinions produced a Connecticut powerplay, which shortly thereafter became a five-on-three. The Whale took advantage, too, as Kelly Babstock narrowed Russia’s lead to just one. But despite some late pressure, Nadezhda Morozova in the Russian goal held the fort from then on. Her 24th and final save of the game, a good one too, came just as time expired, and secured Team Russia’s second victory of the tour.
Russia returns home with a record of two wins and three losses on their NWHL tour, a record that I think everyone will find acceptable. Smolentseva certain did; in an interview for the Women’s Hockey League website, the current Agidel Ufa forward said:
“To win is always pleasant, but to beat the Americans — twice! The teams represented at the tournament are at a lower level than the U.S. national team, but play decently all the same. The tour turned out to be very interesting and useful, both for the players and for the coaches. I hope it is not the last time we conduct a trip of this kind, because if we want to reach the level of the national teams of Canada and the U.S., we need more game practice with overseas teams.”
As far as individual performances are concerned, Belyakova led Team Russia in goals and points, with a line of 5-0-5. Olga Sosina provided four points, all assists, to the cause, while Smolentseva (2-1-3) and Iya Gavrilova (0-3-3) had three apiece. Morozova was the most successful of Russia’s three goalies on the trip (Valeriya Tarakanova and Mariya Sorokina were the other two), winning both her starts and stopping 58 of 61 shots in the process.
So all-in-all, I think we must call the tour a success, from the standpoints both of results and of education. In any case, it definitely seems a project worth repeating!
With the national team back in Russia, Women’s Hockey League play resumed on Monday and will continue through October. Three pairings are underway at the moment, the first of them featuring Biryusa Krasnoyarsk against lowly SK Sverdlovsk Oblast. SKSO came in at 0-3, without having scored a goal, and it was no surprise that Biryusa took the first game between the two, on Monday; in fact, the only shock was that the score was a “mere” 3-0. Biryusa were more lethal in the second meeting, however; Tuesday’s matchup saw them score eight, with Yelena Podkammenaya, freshly returned from the U.S. tour, notching two goals and two assists. With only a couple of minutes left, however, Anastasiya Letovaltseva scored for Sverdlovsk Oblast to break the team’s goal drought, and 8-1 was the final. Unfortunately, the game ended on a sour note, as a line brawl broke out with two seconds left, leading to double-minors assessed to all ten skaters on the ice. We will see if anything more comes of that, either from the league office or when the two teams meet again on Thursday. In the meantime, Biryusa improve to 3-2 on the season, while SKSO remain 0-5.
In St. Petersburg, home side Dynamo are taking on Arktik-Universitet Ukhta, and so far it has all gone Dynamo’s way. Two goals apiece from Diana Bulatova and Yevgeniya Dyulina keyed a 5-2 victory on Monday, and while the Ukhta side made more of a game of it on Tuesday, Dynamo still prevailed by a 6-4 score. Arktik-Universitet are now a disappointing 1-7 on the season, and part of the problem has been fewer points than normal from the team’s superstar, Fanuza Kadirova. While her line of 2-3-5 over the eight games has her tied for the team lead in points, it is less than what we’re used to (she scored 16-21-37 in 24 contests last season). It is possible that teams are simply keying on her a bit more this season. Kadirova did play well for the national team in the United States, not to mention the fact that she is still only 18 years old, so we should probably not fret too much about it, at least not yet.
Dynamo, meanwhile, are your current league-leaders at 7-1. When they finish up with Arktik-Universitet (the two meet again on Thursday), they will turn their attention to defending champions Tornado Moscow Oblast. That series, to take place in St. Petersburg, could have title ramifications, and the powers that be have recognized this. The KHL, which administers the women’s league, will broadcast the first game of the three-game set on Sunday: details can be seen here (h/t to Denis Osipchuk).
The third matchup going on right now features Agidel Ufa visiting SKIF Nizhny Novgorod. The first game of that three-game set went on Tuesday, and it was a thriller. SKIF appeared to have it all sewn up, leading 4-1 with only ten minutes left, but Agidel have the likes of Sosina and Smolentseva (see above) to call upon… Sosina made it 4-2 with eight to play, and it was 4-3 with five minutes left when veteran defender Anna Shchukina found the net. Yekaterina Lebedeva completed the comeback with the tying goal with only two minutes left, and 45 seconds after that, Smolentseva won the game for Agidel. 5-4 was the final — a bitter blow for SKIF, who have played well this season but fall to 2-5. As for Agidel, they are now 5-2, and maintaining third place in the standings. The two teams will play each other twice more this week, on Wednesday and Friday.
I mentioned SK Sverdlovsk Oblast and their struggles (0-5, 1-26 GF-GA), and of course they finished last season 0-24 as well. In fact, they last won a game in 2013-14, when the club was still Spartak-Merkuri Yekaterinburg, and their most recent regulation win came the season before that. In a recent interview, head coach Yuliya Perova spoke about the team’s dire record, and about what comes next:
“Of course, I want to create healthy competition with the other teams, I want wins and accumulated points, but right now this is not the primary task… Gradually, we came to this point, that the team must be rebuilt from scratch. Now we have promising young girls with whom it is necessary to work, then the results will come… The main thing — to make fewer mistakes and give up fewer goals, so as to minimize the moments of frustration, this will allow us to go further. Serious objectives will be put in place next season, when we move to a new phase.”
One of those promising young players is goalie Valeriya Merkusheva, who just turned 17 and has been nothing short of heroic this season. Twenty-six goals against in five games sounds very poor indeed, but Merkusheva has already faced 274 shots (that’s a decent .905 sv%). In fact, in the above-mentioned 3-0 loss to Biryusa that began this week for her, she made 58 saves. Merkusheva is odds-on favourite to be the first-choice goalie for Russia’s Under-18 team at this season’s World Championship, and it may not be long before the senior national team decides to give her a look as well.
In fact, SK Sverdlovsk Oblast will presumably have to do without their excellent young goalie for the third meeting with Biryusa, as Merkusheva has been named to the U18 team for exhibition games in Germany on October 6th and 8th (the German and Swiss U18 sides will provide the opposition). The full Russian roster for the games may be seen here; head coach Yevgeny Bobariko described the lineup as “around 70%” different from the one that won the Cup der deutschen Einheit a couple of weeks ago, as he works through the field of possibilities for the World Championship.
Next Tuesday, we will get you caught up on the Women’s Hockey League happenings, and recap those two U18 exhibition games, along with whatever else may crop up in the meantime. Thank you for reading!