To the Quarterfinals: The U18 Women’s Worlds
We are through the group stage at the Under-18 Women’s World Championship, and Russia enters the quarterfinal round with a record of one win and two losses — an acceptable mark given the opposition. Read on, as we take a closer look at what has transpired so far!
Russia’s opening game, against the defending gold-medalist American team, saw Yevgeny Bobariko’s team turn in a decent first-period effort, matching their more powerful rivals territorially and managing to kill off a lengthy U.S. five-on-three. However, consecutive sloppy shifts in the middle of the opening frame meant that Russia went into the first break down 2-0, and the wheels came off a bit thereafter. Holding a slim 9-8 advantage in shots through 20 minutes, the Americans outshot Russia 30-7 from that point on, and racked up four more goals to lead 6-0 as the game drew towards its close (Diana Farkhutdinova played the first two periods in goal for Russia, before being replaced by Valeriya Merkusheva with the score at 4-0). However, one consolation was on hand for the Russians; in the game’s final minute, Olga Shirokova took off on a superb solo rush from her own defensive zone, ending up eventually behind the opposing net, whence she set up Darya Beloglazova to spoil U.S. goalie Alex Gulstene’s shutout hopes and make the final 6-1.
Game 2 of the group stage would prove no easier, with Canada on the menu. But Merkusheva, starting in goal for Russia, played superbly, and Russia went into the first break down only 1-0 despite being outshot 15-2. And Russian fortunes took an upturn in the second period, as first Oxana Bratisheva and then Alyona Starovoitova found the back of the Canadian net; as the game approached the halfway point, the score read — remarkably — 2-1 for Russia. But the Canadians were soon back on level terms, and they added two more in the third for a 4-2 final. That was a respectable scoreline for Russia given the opposition, although it must be said that the shot total — 45-14 in Canada’s favour — suggested strongly that Merkusheva was the key to making it so.
The results against the U.S. and Canada meant that today’s final group game against Sweden, themselves coming in at 0-2, would be for third place in Group A. Neither goalie — Merkusheva for Russia and Sweden’s Sofia Reideborn — was in a giving mood, and the game went 57 minutes without a goal. Then it was Sweden who got out in front, thanks to Sofie Lundin, but the lead did not last long. Russian captain Nina Pirogova, in her fourth Under-18 Worlds, replied just a minute later to make it 1-1. Overtime, as they say, settled nothing, and to the dreaded shootout we went. The goalies again were excellent — perfect, in fact, through four shots for each team. But finally, Bratisheva got her team’s fifth shot past Reideborn, and third place in the group belonged to Russia.
And so it is on to the quarterfinals! Russia will face hosts Czechia, who finished second in Group B, on Wednesday. The Czechs defeated Japan 3-2 in their first game, but were then upended in their second, 3-2 in a shootout against Switzerland. However, the hosts recovered to take that second place in the group by beating Finland in overtime today, once again by a 3-2 score.
Under the format of this tournament, the quarterfinal is a big, big, game. Not only does winning it — obviously — mean advancing to the semifinal and a guaranteed spot in at least the bronze medal game, but it also awards an automatic berth in Group A for next year’s tournament. That’s an excellent prize, since Group A teams cannot be relegated, and are assured a spot in the quarterfinals at worst. So the pressure will most assuredly be one both teams. The winner will take on the United States in the semifinal on Thursday.
After the opening three games, goalie Merkusheva has probably been Russia’s standout player. After giving up two goals on ten shots in the third period against the Americans, she has stopped 70 of 75 attempts against her. That is a fantastic save percentage, and it’s been good to see Merkusheva, one of Russia’s more intriguing young hockey players, continue the strong play she has shown for SK Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Women’s Hockey League.
As for the team’s performance overall, a mid-term grade of “satisfactory” or perhaps even “good” is in order, I think. Given the format of this tournament, and the strength of the Canadian and American teams, a record of 1-2 was realistically about the best Russia could hope for in group play, and that has been duly achieved. Furthermore, Team Russia, thanks to their goalie, managed to put a scare into the Canadians, and had at least some bright spots against the U.S. On Wednesday will commence the work of tracking down a medal.