Podium! Russia Takes Bronze at the U18 Women’s Worlds
Another year of the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship is now behind us, and for the third straight tournament it was the United States who claimed gold, this time via a 3-1 victory over Canada in the final in the Czech Republic. As for Team Russia, they did just fine as well, taking home their second bronze medal in three years. When we checked in with the tournament last week, the group stage had just wrapped up, with Russia third in Group A; read on, to for a recap of the medal round and some post-tournament thoughts!
The group stage sorted itself out such that Russia drew a quarterfinal matchup with the Czech Republic, and it was to be a heated affair, all the more so as the Czechs were backed by a lively and enthusiastic home crowd. Early on, it was the hosts who had the upper hand, out-shooting Russia 14-7 in the opening 20 minutes but failing to get the puck behind goalie Valeriya Merkusheva. Yevgeny Bobariko’s squad began to push back, however, and halfway through the second period Russia went ahead; Oxana Bratisheva finished off a nice give-and-go with Tatyana Shatalova for the 1-0 marker. Then, in the final minute of the middle frame, with the Czechs short two players due to penalties, blueliner Yelena Provorova worked herself into space to the left of the Czech goal. Alyona Starovoitova picked her out with a shrewd pass, Provorova finished clinically, and the score after 40 minutes was 2-0 in Russia’s favour.
Things turned controversial in the third period. With the Czechs pushing to get back in the game, tempers began to fray a bit, and with four minutes to play Bratisheva leveled the hosts’ captain, Klára Hymlarová, with a ferocious open ice hit. Hymlarová stayed down for several minutes, obviously dazed, before leaving the ice with assistance; Bratisheva also departed, assessed a five-minute match penalty for checking to the head. There was more to come. As the Czech team surged forward on their extended powerplay, and Merkusheva was repeatedly called upon to keep her team two goals up, a post-whistle fracas broke out in the Russian goalmouth. Russia’s captain Nina Pirogova was front and centre in the melee; she and opponent Kristýna Kaltounková both received five minutes plus game misconducts for fighting, while three other players from each team got roughing minors. And that, pretty much, was that; despite the late pressure, Merkusheva kept her shutout intact, and Russia was off to the semifinals on the heels of a 2-0 victory.
The win, which also ensured Team Russia of a berth in Group A at next year’s competition (and thus, inter alia, immunity from the possibility of relegation), did come at a cost. Both Bratisheva and Pirogova were suspended for one game for their roles in the rough stuff. That meant that getting anything from the semifinal against the U.S., already a tall order, became that much harder for the Russians.
The opening period of the semifinal brought little sign that a massive upset might be in the offing; Merkusheva got the start in goal for Russia, but faced something of an onslaught from the first minutes. American forward Grace Zumwinkle proved a particular problem; by midway through the first period she had scored twice to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead, and that was how matters stood after an opening 20 minutes in which Russia was out-shot 12-5.
At that point, and perhaps understandably, it appeared that the Russian players began to think ahead to the bronze medal game, as they managed only one more shot through the last 40 minutes of the semifinal. By the time all was said and done, Merkusheva had been withdrawn and replaced in goal by Diana Farkhutdinova with the score at 4-0 early in the second period. Farkhutdinova did what she could, although she did concede two more goals, one of them Zumwinkle’s hat-trick marker. The final score was 6-0, the final shot total 45-6, and the whole thing must have served as a sobering reminder to the Russian coaches that the gap between their squad and the top of the women’s hockey heap remains a significant one.
Despite the heavy loss in the semifinal, however, Team Russia was still on course to achieve their tournament goal: a bronze medal. Sweden, beaten 6-2 by Canada in the other semifinal, would provide the opposition in the third-place game, for which Russia welcomed back Bratisheva and Pirogova. Merkusheva meanwhile was back in goal and back on form, which proved a good thing early on; Sweden outshot Russia 18-9 in the first period of the match, but failed to get even one past the 17-year-old goalie. And Russia thoroughly turned the tables in the middle 20 minutes. Now it was the turn of Swedish goalie Anna Amholt to keep her team in the game, as she faced 14 Russian shots in the second period while Sweden mustered only one the other way. Amholt did her job, and the teams went to the second break still in a scoreless tie and looking at a tense final 20 minutes.
The breakthrough arrived early in the third period, and it was Russia that got it. After a sustained spell of pressure in the Swedish end, Provorova’s hard wrister from the point made its way first through a crowd and then past Amholt to give Team Russia a 1-0 lead. Sweden, as expected, pushed back hard for an equalizer, and Merkusheva found herself a very busy goalie, especially during 50-second Swedish five-on-three mid-way through the final frame. But she was up to the task, and the Russian lead held up into the late going, when the Swedes began to get into some penalty trouble of their own. That would cost them, and appropriately enough it was Darya Beloglazova who scored the clinching goal. She had opened Russia’s scoring account with a last-minute marker in their first group game, against the U.S., and she finished her team’s tournament off with another last-minute strike, firing home from the side of the crease with Russia enjoying a five-on-three. Two-nil the final, and the Russian Under-18 Women’s team can add another bronze medal to the one they earned at the 2015 competition.
And so it is very much a case of “Mission Accomplished” for Team Russia at this tournament. While still not on the level of the Americans or Canadians, the program shows unmistakable signs of progress. In the first six years of the Under-18 Women’s Worlds, from 2008 to 2013, Russia failed to finish above seventh place, and were in fact relegated to Division 1A in 2010 (they were promoted back to the top division the next year). Since 2013, however, Team Russia has not finished lower than fourth, and has now picked up two bronze medals.
As for this tournament, hats off to the play of Valeriya Merkusheva, who was most deservedly awarded the tournament’s Best Goaltender honours. While her save percentage of .934 ranks “only” sixth among goalies at this year’s competition, that number includes a tough 43:56 played against the United States, during which she gave up six goals on 27 shots. Outside of those struggles, the youngster who plays her club hockey for SK Sverdlovsk Oblast of the Women’s Hockey League was beaten only five times on 140 attempts. Most importantly, in the quarterfinal and the bronze medal game — the two matches that Russia absolutely HAD to win to get the tournament result they wanted — she turned away all 65 shots that came her way. It was a massive performance, although on the downside this is Merkusheva’s last year of eligibility at Under-18 level (on the other hand, Farkhutdinova will be back, and her .905 sv% in limited action, all of it against the U.S., shows that she can handle this level of hockey).
Merkusheva will not be only key figure graduating from the Under-18 program; captain Pirogova, to name but one of several, will not be back either. However, there is certainly no cause for despair. Seven of Russia’s eight goals at the tournament were tallied by players who will still be eligible for the 2018 edition, including Bratisheva (three goals) and Beloglazova (two). Two other goals, including the winner in the bronze medal game, were recorded by Yelena Provorova, the young defender who just turned 15 in November; she has two years of Under-18 eligibility remaining, and will definitely be a figure to watch at future tournaments (just for the record, the only Russian goal scored by a graduating player came off the stick of Pirogova).
The host city for the 2018 tournament has not yet been determined (that decision, per the IIHF, will come in May). What we do know is that Russia will join the U.S.A., Canada, and Sweden in Group A, thus earning an automatic ticket to at least the quarterfinals, not to mention being free of any worries about the relegation round. Group B will be comprised of Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and newly-promoted Germany (Japan were the unlucky squad relegated from this year’s tournament).