The Russian Women’s Team at the Olympics
So, after all the turmoil and tension of the past couple of months, the Russian women’s national team — playing as “The Olympic Athletes from Russia,” and I think I need not recap that whole story yet again — will begin its Olympic journey at the Kwandong Hockey Centre on Gangneung, South Korea, on Sunday. The final roster choices have been made, the lines and pairings seem set, and it is at long last time to play. Read on, for a look at the lineup!
Before we start, I would highly recommend that you also check out the excellent Team Russia preview by LocksTheFox at The Ice Garden! And so without further ado, the Russian women’s hockey roster at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games (asterisk denotes a player who was part of the 2014 Olympic roster):
Nadezhda Alexandrova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Nadezhda Morozova (Biryusa Krasnoyarsk)
Valeriya Tarakanova (SKIF Nizhny Novgorod)
Based on what we have seen in training and exhibition games over the last couple of weeks, it appears that Head Coach Alexei Chistyakov will look to Biryusa’s 21-year-old Morozova as his number one goalie in this tournament. However, that is still far from certain. Alexandrova, at 32, is the only one of the three with Olympic experience, albeit more than a decade ago (Torino 2006). That, and her connection with coach Chistyakov (he is also her coach at Tornado Moscow Oblast), may yet get her the starting role, or at least the regular back-up spot. As for Tarakanova, the 19-year-old recent graduate of the U18 program, she is very much an up-and-comer, but she also has the best sv% of the three Olympic netminders in Women’s Hockey League play this year: .937 in 12 games. Both Morozova’s numbers (12 gp, .924 sv%) and those of Alexandrova (.927 in 12 gp) have been fine as well; in other words, don’t be surprised if all three of these goalies see at least a moment or two on the ice in South Korea.
Mariya Batalova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Anastasiya Chistyakova (Dynamo St. Petersburg, injured)
Liana Ganeyeva (Arktik-Universitet Ukhta)
Angelina Goncharenko* (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Yekaterina Lobova (Biryusa Krasnoyarsk)
Yekaterina Nikolayeva (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
Nina Pirogova (Tornado Moscow Region)
Svetlana Tkachyova* (Tornado Moscow Region)
The Russian defence group has already been dealt something of a blow with the news today that Chistyakova will likely miss the entire Games for unspecified health reasons. During pre-Games preparation, her usual partner had been Lobova, so we wait to see what coach Chistyakov (no relation, by the way) will do: either leave Lobova as the seventh rearguard or substitute her into the current pairing of Nikolayeva and Tkachyova. Tkachyova, incidentally, is the oldest player on the team at 33, and made her return to hockey just this season after two years away on maternity leave. In any case, any combination of Lobova, the under-rated Nikolayeva, and Tkachyova should make for a very solid third pairing.
UPDATE: It is now confirmed that Chistyakova will miss the Games, due to acute appendicitis, and will be replaced in the Russian roster with 19-year-old forward Yekaterina Likhachyova (also see update below). The Russian Hockey Federation reports that Chistyakova is being treated in hospital, and I would like to wish her all the best and a quick recovery.
The top two pairings appear to be set. Pirogova and Goncharenko have been partners for both club and country for several seasons now, although the former only just turned 19 (Goncharenko is 23). The Tornado Moscow Oblast pair are a formidable duo, with Pirogova having been top defensive scorer in the league last season (34 gp, 11-28-39). While her numbers are off this time around — just six points in 12 games so far — the former U18 national team captain also plays the game with, as they say, a bit of an edge, and is not an easy opponent for anyone.
The pairing of Ganeyeva and Batalova is an interesting one too. Batalova flies under the radar a bit behind her above-mentioned Tornado team-mates, but over the last year or so she has become a regular and integral presence in the national team. Ganeyeva’s career arc has been very similar; both players wrapped up their U18 careers a few seasons ago, but have now worked their way into the national side and made their senior World Championship debuts last season. Ganeyeva, captain of her Arktik-Universitet team, is currently the top goal-scorer in the Women’s Hockey League with four in ten games (Nikolayeva and Dynamo’s Czech rearguard Aneta Tejralová also have four goals apiece, but have played two more games).
Lyudmila Belyakova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Yelena Dergachyova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Yevgeniya Dyupina (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
Fanuza Kadirova (Arktik-Universitet Ukhta)
Diana Kanayeva (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
Viktoriya Kulishova (SKIF Nizhni Novgorod)
Valeriya Pavlova (Biryusa Krasnoyarsk)
Anna Shokhina* (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Alevtina Shtaryova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
Yekaterina Smolina* (Dynamo St. Petersburg)
Olga Sosina* (Agidel Ufa)
Alyona Starovoitova (Tornado Moscow Oblast)
As with the defence, the top two units of forwards seem pretty well carved in stone at this point. Chistyakov will send out the now-familiar trio of Dergachyova, Shokhina, and Shtaryova together, and as usual he will have them with their Tornado team-mates Pirogova and Goncharenko on defence. It is something of an old-school set-up, as the Soviet national teams of previous eras liked the five-player unit, with everyone hailing from the same club, as well. Shokhina has looked a bit out of sorts early in the Women’s Hockey League season, after winning the 2016-17 scoring title at a trot (36 gp, 39-42-81), but is still second in league points at 21 in 12 games in 2017-18. She also led Team Russia with 12 points in six games this fall on their tour of the U.S. playing against NWHL teams. And her early-season scoring woes in Russia may be at least partly explained by the fact that the Oswald Commission had charged her with doping offences at the 2014 Games. Shokhina was completely cleared by the Commission in December, and that must have been an immense weight off the 20-year-old’s shoulders. Shtaryova, meanwhile, is currently second in the Women’s Hockey League in goals with ten (she also led the national team in goals on that NWHL tour, scoring six), while Dergachyova is tied for third in league points, just one behind her line-mate Shokhina.
The other line from which coach Chistyakov will look for significant scoring is that of Pavlova, Belyakova, and the remarkable Sosina, who in training have usually had the Ganeyeva-Batalova pairing for defensive support. Sosina, now 25 and playing in her third Olympics, will captain the side in South Korea (Batalova and Dergachyova will be the assistants), and she’s an excellent choice. She currently boasts a line of 11-17-28 in 12 Women’s Hockey League games, and her combination of speed, strength, and skill is not duplicated elsewhere on the roster (or in the league, for that matter). Sosina did miss a couple of days this week, including the exhibition loss to Sweden, due to illness, but all is apparently well now. Pavlova, who like blueliner Tkachyova is just returning from a maternity absence, has put up ten goals and 17 points in 12 games for Biryusa this season, and has been a go-to scorer for the national side as well in recent pre-Olympic tournament action. And Belyakova, well-known to North American fans from her 2015-16 season with the NWHL’s New York Riveters, has scored 9-3-12 in 12 league games this season, despite not playing on Tornado’s first line. It is a toss-up whether the Pavlova-Belyakova-Sosina trio or that of Dergachyova-Shokhina-Shtaryova is Russia’s best at this tournament.
The other two lines will likely be called upon to provide support, but they have some nice things as well. Kadirova is a very dangerous scorer in her own right, and will line up alongside a veteran presence in Smolina and a very under-rated player in Dynamo’s Dyupina. They will represent Russia’s de facto third line, but can certainly find the net, especially if Chistyakov can get them out there against the opponent’s weaker defensive pairings. The fourth line will be a youthful one, with 20-year-old Kanayeva, putting up career-best numbers for Dynamo this season (12 gp, 4-7-11) alongside the team’s two youngest players: 18-year-olds Kulishova and Starovoitova. Both the latter two are somewhat surprising additions to the team, but we should also note that both were part of last season’s Under-18 side that won bronze at the World Championship.
UPDATE: Of course, we wait to see where the 19-year-old Likhachyova, who is making her major-tournament debut in the senior national team who is making her senior, will fit into the line combinations, although it is also possible that Chistyakov will chose to use her simply as a spare forward.
Significant absences from this roster? There are indeed a few. Forward Yekaterina Smolentseva finally hung up the skates after 20 years with the national team; she was a legitimate scoring threat even as her career wound down, and will be missed. The Oswald hearings in late 2017 eliminated a few other candidates: Tornado’s Galina Skiba, plus the Agidel Ufa trio of Anna Shibanova, Yekaterina Lebedeva, and Inna Dyubanok. Lebedeva was later exonerated on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for sport, and the other three had their lifetime Olympic suspensions reduced to a ban from the 2018 Games only. More inexplicable is the absence of Iya Gavrilova, long one of the Russian programs best players and the only one currently based in North America. The Calgary Inferno forward was simply not chosen for these Games, and no rationale behind that decision has yet been made clear.
Much will be made of the fact that there only one player (Sosina) from current Women’s Hockey League leaders Agidel Ufa. As noted, Oswald played a role in this, but the roster is also missing some other national-team regulars from the Bashkir club, such as forwards Alexandra Vafina and Elina Mitrofanova. Agidel also have a couple of worthy goaltending candidates on the books in Anna Prugova and Mariya Sorokina, the latter of whom was Russia’s main goalie at the 2017 World Championship and was only just acquired a couple of weeks ago from Dynamo St. Petersburg. If things go badly in South Korea, there will certainly be questions to be asked, but I would point out that many of those absences say as much about the increasing depth of the Russian women’s national program as they do about anything else.
So roll on the Games! Team Russia will commence the 2018 Olympics on Sunday with a Group A game against Canada. On Tuesday, they will take on the United States, and will wrap up group play on Thursday against Finland. Given the format of this tournament, all Group A teams are guaranteed a spot in at least the quarterfinals, which will be played next Saturday. The semi-finals will follow on Monday the 19th of February, with the medal games on Wednesday (bronze), and Thursday (gold) of that week.
Thank you for reading, and please do visit again for updates on how the Russian women’s team is getting along!