To the Quarterfinals at the Women’s Worlds
Hockey can be an insular, insulating, and insulated thing — and sometimes that is no bad thing — but events away from the rink do intrude on occasion, and so it was today. It was, without doubt, a heavy-hearted group of Russian players that took the ice, black armbands prominent on their sweaters, to face Team Canada in their third Group A match at the 2017 Women’s World Championship in Michigan. And I would like to take this opportunity to pass on my own condolences, thoughts, and prayers to the victims and their friends and families, and to the city of St. Petersburg, after the terrorist attack on the city’s metro earlier today.
Read on, for a recap of Team Russia’s group stage games at the Women’s Worlds.
First up in Russia’s quest to defend the bronze medal won last year was Team Finland on Friday. It would be a tough proposition; not only do the Finns have the great Noora Räty back out of retirement and in net for this tournament, but Russia would be without the services of two of her key players. Anna Shokhina and team captain Olga Sosina both received match penalties in last Tuesday’s warmup game against Switzerland, and thus were serving one-game suspensions. But though Russia and Finland traded powerplay opportunities during the opening period of Friday’s encounter, Räty and Russian goalie Nadezhda Alexandrova kept their respective nets empty of pucks — no score at the first break. In the second, Finland dominated, holding Russia to just one shot while firing off ten of their own. One of them, off the stick of 43-year-old veteran Riikka Välilä, found its way past Alexandrova for a 1-0 Finnish lead after 40 minutes (Välilä, incidentally, played in the first-ever Women’s Worlds, back in 1990).
Whatever Russian head coach Alexei Chistyakov told his crew during the second intermission, it had the desired effect. The final frame was only a couple of minutes old when Fanuza Kadirova skated up the right wing, cut to the middle of the ice, and fired past Räty from the slot to even the score at 1-1. The game looked headed to extra time, but with only two minutes left in regulation, a Finnish penalty gifted Russia a glorious chance to win all three points, and the opportunity would not be spurned. Alexandra Vafina’s pass across the top of the crease was smacked home by veteran Yekaterina Smolentseva with only 40 seconds left, and while some of those seconds would be tense ones for Alexandrova and her defenders, the game ended 2-1 for Russia.
The winning goal was not without some controversy: Räty was furious post-game, claiming that the net had come loose from its moorings when she tried to push off the post to come across and save Smolentseva’s shot, leaving the Finnish goalie stuck on the wrong side of the goal for just a heartbeat too long. It was not the first time that the nets at the tournament’s secondary arena, where the game was played, had come under such scrutiny: Chistyakov and several Russian players had noted the ease of dislodging them during the pre-tournament match with Switzerland, and there were complaints about them in a subsequent game as well. That said, there could be no doubt that Smolentseva’s game-winner was a legal goal; while the net was off by the time the puck crossed the line, it was not off by very far, and indeed it was off due to Räty’s own actions, however unintentionally so (full highlights of the game, including that goal, can be watched here).
Sosina and Shokhina rejoined the lineup to face the U.S.A. on Saturday. Mariya Sorokina got the start in the Russian goal, and she was splendid through the opening 20 minutes. Early penalty trouble saw the Russian penalty-killing unit keep the powerful Americans off the board, before Chistyakov’s team earned some powerplay time of its own later on. Team Russia could not take advantage, though, and late in the first period Amanda Kessel put the U.S.A. ahead. Thatgoal was the only one on the board after the first period, despite the Americans having a 12-4 advantage in shots.
Thanks in large part to Sorokina’s efforts, that 1-0 scoreline held up until the mid-point of the game, when two more American tallies in a minute made it 3-0. A fourth followed before the end of the second, with Alexandra Vafina in the penalty box. From there, the game eased towards its end, although Brianna Decker increased the American lead to 5-0 with just about ten minutes left. And the game’s final moments would not have been pleasing ones to Chistyakov; two more American goals in the last 21 seconds made the final score 7-0.
Meanwhile, Team Finland was hurling the Group A standings into chaos by defeating Canada, becoming the first team other than the U.S. to do so at the worlds. That stunning result left the Canadians at 0-2 for the tournament, and meant that they were a desperate bunch when they took the ice against Team Russia today. That factor, plus the near-certainty that the Russian players were somewhat distracted by the sad events in St. Petersburg, boded ill. However, Sorokina was once again between the pipes, and she once again held a powerful opponent scoreless in the opening stages. Russia even had a gilt-edged chance to take the lead, as Shokhina won herself a shorthanded breakaway only to be foiled by Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados.
Unfortunately, once the floodgates opened, they did so in a big way. In the space of four minutes late in the first period, the game went from scoreless to 4-0 in Canada’s favour, with Jessica Wakefield finding the net twice in that flurry. Russia responded with a decent enough second period, but failure to capitalize on some early powerplay chances would prove costly, as the Canadian lead was stretched to 5-0 by the end of 40 minutes. In the third, two goals in two minutes early on made it 7-0 (Alexandrova replaced Sorokina after the first of those), and another last-minute tally meant that the final was an 8-0 Canadian victory.
And so fortunes have been somewhat mixed for Team Russia through the first three games. The team deserves full credit for its opening victory over Finland, especially given the absences of Shokhina and Sosina — and especially especially given Finland’s subsequent shocking upset of Team Canada and subsequent real scare they gave the U.S.! However, signs of progress against the North American giants remain elusive at the Worlds, when we look at the final scores against the Americans and Canadians. Moments of utter disaster (two goals against in a minute twice against the Americans, plus the late first-period implosion versus Canada) are a part of the problem; while cutting those out would not in itself provide victories over the behemoths of the women’s game, it would certainly bring happy results much closer.
That said, and despite Russia’s fourth-place finish in Group A, there are reasons to be optimistic. Russia was fourth after the group stage in 2016 as well, and went on to capture that bronze medal. Next on the menu is a quarterfinal encounter with the upstart German team; newly promoted back to the top division for this tournament, the Germans have already recorded wins over Sweden and Czechia, and they finished in first place in Group B. The Russia-Germany quarterfinal will take place on Tuesday. Of interest will be Chistyakov’s decision as regards Russia’s starting goalie. Alexandrova has the team’s lone win so far, and was very good in that victory. Sorokina, though her numbers look bad, has performed heroics on occasion, particularly early in the match against the Americans. And we have not yet had a chance to see Nadezhda Morozova, who was so important to the bronze medal team in 2016. Any of the three, realistically, could get the nod against Germany.
As a final note, there was some interesting news from the IIHF today regarding future editions of this tournament. In May, the IIHF Congress will decide on a proposal to increase the number of teams in the field to ten for the 2019 tournament (the 2018 Olympics in South Korea will take the place of the Women’s Worlds next year). Full details on that proposal, including how the switch to ten teams would be carried out, can be seen here.
Thank you for reading!
Петербург, мы с тобой.