A Step Back?
Russia’s run at the 2017 Women’s World Championship in Michigan came to an end today, without a medal and a day earlier than was hoped-for. What happened, and what can we take away from what must be considered a disappointing tournament? Read on…
After the dust had settled from the group stage at the 2017 Women’s Worlds, Team Russia found themselves up against Germany in the quarterfinal. Germany had already established themselves as one of the big stories at this tournament, having recorded Group B victories over Sweden and Czechia, and they proceeded to write another chapter on Tuesday. However, things good early for Russia, who went with Nadezhda Alexandrova in goal after her opening-game win against Finland. Only a couple of minutes in, the Tornado Moscow Oblast forward line of Anna Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova, and Alevtina Shtaryova forced a turnover in the German zone. The puck eventually found Shokhina all by her lonesome at the side of the net; one skillful move followed, and she slid the puck under German goalie Jennifer Harß. 1-0 to Russia, and that was the score after the opening 20 minutes.
But Harß had stopped 44 of 45 shots over parts of three games coming into the quarterfinal, and she proceeded to prove that it was no fluke; after Shokhina’s goal, she kept the floodgates from opening, and in fact kept Russia from increasing their lead at all. Late in the second period, with Germany enjoying a five-on-three, Harß’s team-mates rewarded her fine play, as Kerstin Spielberger banged home the equalizer to make the score 1-1 heading into the third. In the final frame, the German goalie proved no more generous to the Russian scorers, and with Alexandrova also standing tall in net, one got the feeling that one more goal could win it. When it arrived, it was off the stick of Germany’s Marie Delarbre, ten minutes into the final frame, and it put Russia 2-1 down heading into the game’s closing stages. There were chances to tie — very late, with the Russian net empty, Olga Sosina struck the crossbar behind Harß — but no equalizer was to be found. 2-1 was the final score, and it was Germany, newly promoted from Division 1A, who moved on to face the USA in today’s semi-final with a shot at at least the bronze medal guaranteed.
It was a disappointing end to Russia’s quest to defend last year’s bronze medal win, but there was a still a game to be played: today’s fifth-place determiner against Sweden, which would turn out to be a thriller. Coach Alexei Chistyakov chose Mariya Sorokina to start in goal; she had done the heavy lifting against the USA and Canada in the group stage. Little of note happened until late in the first period, when Johanna Fällman struck to give Sweden a 1-0 advantage after 20 minutes, and at that point some frustration began to show for the Russians. Early in the second period, with Russia already one player short, Dergachyova picked up a minor-misconduct combination, and Fällman struck again on the ensuing five-on-three to make the score 2-0 and end Sorokina’s night — in came Alexandrova in relief. Not long thereafter, veteran Yekaterina Smolentseva also headed to the box for 2+10, and the wheels appeared to be coming off entirely for Team Russia.
However, credit to the Russian players for some resilience; they killed off the minor penalty, and started to get some pressure on the Swedish net. The 2-0 scoreline held up to the end of the second period, but early in third, the Russian goals started to come, and the first 15 minutes or so of the final frame would be the team’s best stretch of the tournament. First it was Lyudmila Belyakova, just a couple of minutes in, reducing the arrears to 2-1, and halfway through the period Fanuza Kadirova notched her second goal of the tournament to get her team level. Three minutes after that, and the comeback appeared complete, as team captain Sosina scored to put Russia ahead by 3-2. But Sweden had an answer, as Pernilla Winberg found the net on a powerplay with only two minutes left, and off to overtime we went.
The ten-minute overtime period belonged to Russia, at least in terms of balance of play, as they fired seven shots at Swedish goalie Lovisa Berndtsson while allowing only two to trouble Alexandrova. But Berndtsson was resolute, and this game would require the dreaded shootout to settle it. After both teams’ first two shooters had been foiled, Sosina found the net to put Russia ahead, only to see Erika Grahm level for Sweden. No matter, though: up stepped Kadirova to restore the advantage, and when Alexandrova stopped Anna Borgqvist on her attempt, fifth place belonged to Russia. Your mileage may vary as to how much the dramatic victory reduces the sting of that quarterfinal loss, but at least the team goes home on a winning note.
A so it is a fifth-place finish for Russia, certainly not what had been anticipated at the tournament’s outset. What went wrong? Well, not enough scoring, to begin with. Russia’s three goals in the final period against Sweden today matched the team’s entire output over the previous four-and-two-thirds games combined, and even if getting shutout by Canada and the USA is no great sin, it is hard to advance very far at that kind of rate. Coach Alexei Chistyakov noted this particularly after the quarterfinal defeat by Germany, saying “I was not able to get through to the girls that they needed to push forward and play more boldly in front of the opponent’s net. There was too much individual play…”
Special teams were also a problem. Team Russia has the lowest success rate on the powerplay of any team at the tournament at this point (we note here that there are still the medal games to be played tomorrow), with only one goal in 18 chances. The penalty-killers also struggled, giving up seven goals in 22 times shorthanded, and that statistic was doubly damaging as only Finland have taken more minor penalties through their first five games than Russia. So there is definitely some work to do there, although we once again must note that some teams did not have to play the North American powerhouses.
As far as team selection goes, I don’t think there can be too much to criticize, although we might wonder a bit at the omissions of Alexandra Kapustina and Yekaterina Nikolayeva on defense. Russia took only six rearguards in 2016, and eight this time; the net effect was that four defenders, half of the team’s blueline complement were making their Worlds debuts in Michigan. It was also a bit strange not to see goalie Nadezhda Morozova, such a big part of the 2016 bronze medal win, get any ice time at all at the 2017 tournament. Then again, both Sorokina and (particularly) Alexandrova played well in goal, and neither was defence the primary problem. And as for the forward group, it is hard to see any of the Chistyakov’s selections there as too controversial.
It would be unfair, also, not to mention that but for the opposing goalie’s great performance in the quarterfinal game, and their own inability to generate enough chances, Team Russia would likely have been playing in a semifinal today and looking forward to a chance at a medal of some colour or other. Things can change very quickly, for better or worse, in a tournament of this format, and while it is easy to see a vast gulf between third place and fifth, there really isn’t one.
In the final analysis, however, this tournament must go down as a disappointment for Team Russia on a couple of levels. The medal was not defended successfully, nor were there any particularly tangible signs of progress in closing the gap between the Russian women’s program and the North American giants. One the other hand, the opening-day victory over Finland became even more impressive with the Finns’ group-stage victory over Canada and subsequent close loss to the USA. And today’s comeback against Sweden showed Team Russia at their best, at least once some early hiccups had been overcome. So I think the answer to the question posed in the title above is that the 2017 Worlds, while certainly not representing a step forward for Russia’s women’s program, should also not be seen as a step back, or at least not a big one.
Normally, a fifth-place finish would mean that Russia would start the next Worlds in Group B, with a chance of ending up in the relegation round if things went badly. However, that may not be the case this time; if the IIHF goes ahead with a proposal to increase the Women’s Worlds field to ten teams, a new format will be in place next time, and we do not yet know what that will be. All will be decided in May. For Team Russia, though, attention will now turn to next season, and the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
Tomorrow will see the end of the 2017 Worlds, with three games. Czechia takes on Switzerland in the rubber match of the best-of-three relegation round, although given the above-mentioned proposed change in tournament format, it is possible that nobody will end up relegated at all. Germany’s brave run through the tournament came to an end thanks to an 11-0 semifinal loss to the USA; the Germans will play for bronze against Finland, who could not repeat their earlier tournament upset and were beaten 4-0 by Team Canada. The two North American rivals will meet to decide the gold medal.
Next week, we will have a regular women’s hockey update here, as there still stories to cover as we move into the off-season. Also beginning soon is the men’s U18 World Championship, and we will have coverage of that tournament too. However, attention now also turns to this Saturday, and Game 1 of the KHL’s Gagarin Cup final. Preview of that tomorrow, and in the meantime thank you for reading!