Wrapping Up the Under-18 Women’s Worlds
The 2018 Women’s Under-18 World Championship came to an end on Saturday in Dmitrov, Russia, as the United States collected its fourth straight gold medal at the event with a 9-3 victory over Sweden. Not that the Swedes need be embarrassed; the tournament saw them become the first non-North American team to make it to the gold medal game. As we have mentioned here before, the tournament had earlier seen some history made by Team Russia, who became the first squad from outside North America to beat one of the continent’s two women’s hockey powerhouses. However, in the end the Russian players may leave their home tournament (the first top-division women’s hockey Worlds held in Russia) with a sense of an opportunity missed, as they dropped the bronze medal match to Canada by a score of 5-1. Read on, for a recap of how Russia’s tournament ended, and for some thoughts.
After seeing off Finland by 2-0 in the quarterfinal, Russia’s semifinal game meant a second crack at Sweden and impressive netminder Anna Amholt, who had shut them out in the group stage. Amholt, who would go on to win deservedly the tournament’s Best Goalie award, was again at her best in the semifinal, but for the first half of the game her Russian counterpart Diana Farkhutdinova matched her save for save. Then, midway through the second period, Sweden got on the board — Josefin Bouveng striking on the powerplay for a 1-0 lead. So the middle frame ended, and when Russia failed to score on an extended five-on-three early in the third, things looked dire indeed.
Then came a breakthrough — for the first time in six periods of trying, Team Russia got the puck past Amholt, and it was Ilona Markova who equalized on the powerplay for a 1-1 score. But the relief on the Russian bench would be short-lived; less than two minutes after Markova’s goal, Sweden were in front again, as Lina Ljungblom found the net to make it 2-1. Shortly thereafter, Russia once again enjoyed a lengthy spell of powerplay time — nearly three straight minutes, and much of that five-on-three, but there was Amholt stopping everything that came her way. The game finished up at 2-1, and it was Sweden who became the first non-North American team to play in a U18 Women’s Worlds gold medal game.
Russia ended her tournament in the bronze medal match on Saturday, with a re-match against the Canadian side they had so amazingly beaten to commence proceedings a week ago. This time, however, there would be no repeat of that famous victory. Julia Gosling put Canada up 1-0 after 20 minutes, and in the second Audrey-Anne Veillette and Abygail Moloughney ran that score to 3-0. When Courtney Vorster and Alexie Guay made it 5-0 early in the third period, the game was effectively. However, Vita Ponyatovskaya gave the home fans one more occasion to cheer in this tournament; her consolation marker with 11 minutes to play made the final score 5-1.
And so a tournament that had begun so spectacularly ended without a medal for Team Russia, and the players’ faces after the bronze medal game told eloquently of their disappointment. What went wrong? Well, it was a little of this and a little of that. Team Russia showed at times an inability to stay out of the penalty box (only Team Canada took more penalties in the tournament), and their special teams were only mid-table in effectiveness. And emotional exhaustion may have set in, with the World Championship in Russia for the first time and in the wake of that big win over the Canadians. Coach Yevgeny Bobariko spoke, after Saturday’s loss to Canada, of fatigue both physical and psychological, and I think we could see some signs of that as the tournament rolled along.
We must also say that Russia flat-out did not score enough goals in this tournament — just ten in six games, and no player scored more than twice (Mariya Alexandrova, Daria Beloglazova, and Ilona Markova had two goals apiece). The two tremendous performances against them by Sweden’s Amholt had much to do with that, of course, but Team Russia very much needed the goal-scoring they have gotten in the past U18 Worlds from the likes of Fanuza Kadirova and Anna Shokhina.
However, in the midst of the disappointment, we should also to consider the bright spots. To begin with, the tournament in Dmitrov was a definite success, with enthusiastic crowds filling the arena to the rafters whenever the home side played, and turning out in decent numbers for the other teams’ games as well. More than 22000 spectators in total took in the event, setting (by about 5000!) a new record for an Under-18 Women’s Worlds held in Europe. There has been talk in the last couple of years about Russia bidding to host the senior Women’s Worlds, and this tournament will have done that possibility no harm at all.
There were also some bright individual performances from Team Russia, despite the lack of a medal at the end. Diana Farkhutdinova played all but one period of the tournament in net, and finished with the second-best sv% overall at .925. She graduates now from the Under-18 program, and will look to follow recent U18 star goalies like Valeriya Merkusheva and Valeriya Tarakanova into the senior national team picture. Oxana Bratishcheva, also playing her last U18 Worlds, led the squad in scoring with 1-4-5 in six games; she too is a player to watch with regard to the senior national side in coming seasons. And Ilona Markova (6 gp, 2-0-2) was named one of the three forwards on the tournament All-Star team (you can see the complete list of award-winners here).
And Markova, who was also named Team Russia’s best forward, will be back; in fact she has two years of U18 eligibility remaining. Yelena Provorova, named Team Russia’s best defender after tying for fourth in points by blueliners at the tournament (6 gp, 0-3-3), will also have another crack at the U18 Worlds. And it was perhaps fitting enough that the final Russian goal of the week came off the stick of defender Ponyatovskaya, the team’s youngest player. Ponyatovskaya, who just turned 15 midway through this tournament, could well become a famous name at the U18 Worlds, given that she has three more years of eligibility. She also puts up some very decent scoring numbers on boys’ teams at the Mechel Chelyabinsk club; we will likely see her in the Women’s Hockey League in time, and possibly sooner rather than later. So there are definitely things to look forward to as far as the Under-18 national team is concerned.
Finally, we must not discount that opening-day win over Canada, the first ever defeat of North American team by a squad from elsewhere at the U18 Women’s Worlds. While it was indeed “just one game,” it still represents a tremendous feat for Team Russia, especially because it was so totally deserved; the team devised and executed a game-plan specifically to beat a North American team, and it worked. Such victories may not become regular occurrences just yet, as the result of the bronze medal game suggests, but it was an important development milestone for Russian women’s hockey nonetheless. Said Canadian coach Delaney Collins after the tournament:
The key here, of course, is to build upon that development, and keep up the positive momentum. To that end, this week saw more than 50 women’s hockey coaches and experts from around the hockey world gathered in Moscow for a seminar on “Key Aspects of Training Hockey Players for the Women’s National Teams of Russia.” Among the speakers: former Canadian women’s national team coach Melody Davidson, Chairwoman of the IIHF Women’s Committee Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, and Women’s Committee member Olga Votolovskaya. Former Russian women’s national team coach Mikhail Chekanov and current senior team bench boss Alexei Chistyakov also took part. We wait now to see the fruits of such gatherings, and also to find out where the Russian U18 women’s hockey program goes from here!
So congratulations to the three medalists at this year’s Under-18 Women’s World Championship: the United States, Sweden, and Canada! And also to the organizers of what turned out to be a very successful tournament. For Team Russia, despite the disappointment of the final on-ice result, there are justifiable reasons to be excited about the future. Russian forward Polina Luchnikova (who should also be a part of the U18 Worlds for the next couple of seasons) summed it up well, I think, in her comments after the bronze medal game:
“Thank you to the fans for believing in us and supporting us until the end. We apologize to all of Russia for not meeting expectations in our home tournament, because we could have gone down in history. But I promise that this is not the end. Next time, we will win.”
Thank you for reading!