What a Day!
Well! I had intended to take today to write a wrap-up piece on the just-completed World Juniors, which saw the Russian side miss out on the podium for the first time in eight years. However, sometimes history gets in the way, so that piece will have to wait! Why? Because on Saturday, Russia’s Under-18 women’s national team opened the 2018 U18 Worlds, at home in Dmitrov just north of Moscow, with a 3-2 victory over Canada. It was the first time at this competition that Russia had beaten a North American team — in fact, it was the first time that any team from outside North America had defeated either Canada or the U.S. Read on, for a look at how it all happened (and above is the video of the entire game)!
The arena in Dmitrov, home of defending Women’s Hockey League champions Tornado Moscow Oblast, was packed to the rafters for this one, with more than 2200 people squeezed into a rink built for about 2000 or so. And the crowd was loud, enthusiastic, and partisan, firmly behind their underdog U18 team as they prepared to take on the always-powerful Canadian team. As mentioned above, Canada had never lost at this tournament to any team but the United States (and vice versa). Russian head coach Yevgeny Bobariko, as expected, opted to start Diana Farkhutdinova in net, with Milena Tretyak as back-up, and he sent out his big line for the opening faceoff as well: forwards Oxana Bratishcheva, Darya Beloglazova, and Yelizaveta Shkalyova, with team captain Alina Orlova alongside Yelena Provorova on defence.
The opening of the game saw Canada getting some shots through, but without unduly troubling Farkhutdinova in the Russian goal — this would become a theme throughout the match. And in front of that packed house six minutes into the first period, an innocent-looking play ended up in the opening score for Team Russia. A faceoff was won in the defensive zone, and the puck arrived on the stick of defender Anna Savonina behind her own net. Forward Mariya Alexandrova, who plays her club hockey in the same rink for Tornado Moscow Oblast, read the play perfectly, and Savonina found her with an astute breakout pass up the middle. Alexandrova, for her part, used the last Canadian defender back as a screen, and wristed past Madelyn McArthur; 1-0 to Russia, and the joy in the building was palpable.
Canada continued to spend a lot of time with the puck, but a calm-footed and disciplined Russian defence kept most of that possession to the less dangerous areas of the ice. And the few chances that did get through found goalie Farkhutdinova in less than a giving mood. The first period, despite a 9-4 advantage for Team Canada in shots, ended with Russia in front 1-0, and fully deserving of the lead as well!
That storyline continued into the second period , and some frustration began to appear for the Canadian team; they took three straight minor penalties to open the middle frame, and the third of those, halfway through, would prove costly indeed. The Russian powerplay worked the puck back to Yelena Provorova at the point, and while her speculative shot through was saved by McArthur, the rebound came straight to Darya Beloglazova in the slot. Beloglazova is one of Russia’s real skill players — she spun 180 degrees on the spot to get the puck on her forehand and fired past the Canadian goalie for the 2-0 lead. The second period would end with that scoreline intact, despite a cumulative 21-10 Canadian advantage in shots.
By this time, the fans in the building and all those (of whatever rooting interest) watching online, must have begun to consider at least the possibility of a truly remarkable result. But 2-0 is hardly a safe lead against Canada or the United States in women’s hockey, and the Canadians injected some more tension into the affair by breaking through to halve the lead five minutes into the third period. The Russian defence, on a penalty-kill, finally got pulled out of position just enough to let Courtney Vorster tee the puck up for Sarah Fillier in a dangerous spot. Team Canada’s captain made no mistake, and the score was 2-1.
Based on past games between these two teams, it must be said, Canada could well at this point have gone on to take over the match; Russian women’s national teams have been known to give up goals in bunches to their North American rivals (and they are not alone in that regard). But such did not happen this time. Instead, Team Russia went straight back to its previous calm and disciplined play, and was rewarded five minutes later with the restoration of the two-goal lead. In the waning seconds of a Russian powerplay, Mariya Lobur worked her way to the front of the net, and her centering pass was belted home from close range by Oxana Bratishcheva. 3-1, now, for the hosts.
The pressure was truly on, and there was more drama yet to come. With seven and a half minutes left to play in the third, Margaret MacEachern sifted a wrist-shot from the point past everybody — including Farkhutdinova — and suddenly Canada was within a goal again.
But one more time, the Russian team refused to buckle, and that as much as anything will be the story of this game. The last few minutes saw the Canadian shots come flying in (Canada outshot Russia 15-4 in the third period), but as throughout the game, they tended to come from distance or from inopportune angles, or be blocked, or simply find the resolute form of Farkhutdinova in the Russian goal. There were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments, to be sure, but they came to nothing, and Team Russia even had a spectacular chance to go up 4-2; Bratishcheva only just barely missed converting on a two-on-one. McArthur departed the Canadian net in favour of an extra attacker, but even that failed to break down the Russian defence. In the final moments, the Canadians took a frustration-driven penalty deep in their own zone and that, as they say, was that. The last seconds ticked off without incident, and into the books went the historic win for Team Russia.
It did so amid scenes of wild jubilation, on and off the ice — and the joy of the players and fans was fully earned on this day. It would be easy to look at the final shots on goal (36-14 in Canada’s favour) and imagine that Farkhutdinova stole the game for Russia. The SKIF Nizhny Novgorod goalie was indeed excellent, deservedly taking home Team Russia’s “Player of the Game” award (defender Zoe Boyd won the corresponding honour for Team Canada). But in terms of the shots on goal, Russia’s quality thereof trumped Canada’s quantity in this one (legendary Soviet hockey coach Anatoly Tarasov would highly approve!), and in fact the host team could have won this game by more than they did.
It is really not possible to say enough about how well Team Russia played in this game. Coach Bobariko, himself deserving of much credit for having prepared his squad very well indeed, afterwards praised their calm teamwork and adherence to the game-plan: “We were patient, and waited for the opponent’s mistakes… The girls played properly and scored beautiful goals.” He also tipped his hat to that amazing crowd in the Dmitrov arena, saying: “they were the sixth skater on the ice.” Bratishcheva, whose third-period goal was the winner, noted the team’s refusal to crumble in moments of crisis: “after we gave up the goal there was no confusion, nobody was afraid.” The Canadians, for their part, were gracious though understandably dejected; said head coach Delaney Collins: “It was great to see those fans, and I’m certainly happy for the Russian team to win with that crowd, but overall our team is disappointed.”
Those characteristics of patience, team-work, resilience, and discipline will be called upon again by Team Russia, and in short order, as they get little time to bask in this historic win. On Sunday, the team takes on the other North American powerhouse, the United States, in both teams’ second Group A game. The American team got a scare in their opener, needing overtime to defeat Sweden 2-1 (Russia will play the Swedes to close out the group stage on Tuesday). A Russian victory seems unlikely, but 24 hours ago we would have said the same about a win over Canada. And however this tournament ends up for Team Russia, that vital step on the development path — a World Championship win over one of the North American sides — has now been taken.
As a final note, Saturday was a very good day indeed for Russian women’s hockey! A few hours after the Under-18s’ magnificent win in Dmitrov, and 2500 km. away, the Russian senior women’s national team wrapped up a gold medal at the six-country Nations Cup in Füssen, Germany, via a 4-1 over Sweden in the tournament final. We will have a full recap of that competition, and an update on how the Under-18 Worlds are getting along, in the women’s hockey update early next week. Thank you for reading!
And of course, веселого Рождества и счастливого Нового года to all who are celebrating on the Orthodox calendar this week!