Women’s Hockey Update: February 27th, 2018
With the Olympic Games over, we now return to the weekly women’s hockey updates! This one is sort of a catch-up edition; there were games in the amateur League of Women’s Hockey and in the Russian national Under-18 championship during the Olympic break, so read on for a full recap of those events. And we will also start to take a look at the women’s hockey program in Russia in light of the results from these most recent Games, and at where it might go in the future.
The Russian women’s national team returned from the Olympics last week, having come up short of the desired goal of a medal, but by the same token having achieved a best-ever finish at the Games by coming in fourth. So what are we to make of the team’s performance? Well, the answer I think is a fairly obvious one: it is a case of progress made, but more progress needed.
There were certainly things to fuss about as regards the team’s results at the Olympics. The Russian side won only once in six games, and was shut out three times, although all three of those blankings (by identical 5-0 scores, oddly), came at the hands of the North American powerhouse teams. The Russians scored only nine goals, while conceding 25, and had particular trouble with slow starts to periods. In five of the last six periods they played (in the semi-final against Canada and the bronze medal game against Finland), the Russian team gave up a goal inside the first three minutes. So, areas of concern for sure.
On the other hand, this was a very, very young Russian team, with an average age of about 22. Only one player, defender Svetlana Tkachyova, is over the age of 30, and by the time the 2022 Games roll around, only one more player from this group will have joined her in that age bracket (forward Yekaterina Smolina). There were also some key figures missing from the team: Galina Skiba, Inna Dyubanok, and Anna Shibanova were convicted by the Oswald Commission investigating doping allegations from 2014, and were suspended for these games. Forwards Iya Gavrilova and Alexandra Vafina were simply not selected for the 2018 Olympics. So while it would be a stretch to call this a “makeshift” lineup, there were certainly gaps.
But the one game that Russia did win was an important one, a first ever victory in an Olympic quarterfinal, and over a tough Swiss team with a superb goalie in Florence Schelling. Russia won it resoundingly, too — a 6-2 victory driven by four points from 20-year-old Tornado Moscow Oblast forward Anna Shokhina. And at a key moment in that game, with Russia trailing 2-1, it was the squad’s second-youngest player who stepped up. 18-year-old Viktoriya Kulishova of SKIF Nizhny Novgorod was something of a surprise inclusion on the roster, but she gained in ice time and confidence as the Games went along, and against the Swiss she fought through a hard check to bury a rebound and tie the score at two apiece. The Russian team rolled from there. So there is definitely some hope for the future, and in the meantime the squad can still boast, for the next couple of Olympic cycles at least (we hope), the talents of the prodigious Olga Sosina among others.
Recent years have seen encouraging developments like the foundation of the national amateur league (the League of Women’s Hockey, which for the first time this season included a U18 division) and the takeover of the professional Women’s Hockey League by the KHL, an agreement that has recently been extended for another three seasons beyond the current one. And 2017 saw a new youth international tournament, in the Under-16 Girls’ European Championship, whose inaugural gold medal was won by Russia last spring.
The progress that has been made bore some fruit in January, when the Russian Under-18 team defeated Canada in the opening match of the U18 Worlds in Dmitrov. While that event, the first women’s world championship ever hosted in Russia (a positive development in itself), ended for Team Russia in a disappointing fourth-place finish, the victory over Canada and the fact that the tournament broke U18 Worlds attendance records provided tremendous silver linings.
Now the question becomes what to do to keep up the progress that has been made, and to take the next steps towards parity with the North American programs. Russian women’s senior team Head Coach Alexei Chistyakov noted on a couple of occasions during the Olympics that a 5-0 loss to Canada or the United States in fact represents some improvement over the way things used to be. But while that is certainly true, there is also still obviously room for improvement, and that of course starts with creation of more hockey opportunities for young girls in Russia, both at the grassroots level and in terms of elite training and coaching.
Coach Chistyakov also had some thoughts during the Games on how that process might be aided. This post is going to be plenty long enough as it is, so next time or at a suitable opportunity, we will take a look at what he said, and at what steps might be taken to help development of women’s hockey in Russia.
Back to the ice we go, and there was certainly women’s hockey being played in Russia while the pro league was on break for the Olympics. The Russian U18 women’s championship played its third tournament of the season during the Olympic break, in the city of Voskresensk in Moscow Oblast. SKIF Nizhny Novgorod’s youngsters had won the first two stages of the championship, but had been pressed hard by the Selects team of Moscow Oblast in each one. Also taking part was a team from the Sergei Makarov hockey school in Chelyabinsk, the Pervomaiskie Lvitsy Korkino team, and Selects sides from Vologda Oblast, Sverdlovsk Oblast, and the city Moscow itself.
This stage of the competition went much as the first two had this season, at least at first. SKIF and the Moscow Oblast team swept their rivals aside en route to their decisive meeting on the tournament’s final day. And no wonder — these two teams boast a significant contingent of players from the Under-16 Russian national team that took gold at the inaugural European championship last season. In fact, it was the two goalies from that squad (Karina Zolotaryova for SKIF and Anna Alpatova for Moscow Oblast) who faced each other in Voskresensk when SKIF and Moscow Oblast met.
And the game was very much a defensive struggle. With just four minutes remaining in the third period, both goaltenders had been perfect, and the score stood at 0-0. Then, the breakthrough arrived, as U18 national-teamer Anna Savonina beat Zolotaryova to put Moscow Oblast in front. But the lead would last a mere 30 seconds before Polina Luchnikova, another alumna of that Under-16 Russian team, equalized for SKIF. Thereafter the two goalies went back to work, and the teams arrived at the shootout stage still tied at one goal apiece. There, it was Alpatova who would come out on top, stopping five of seven shots she faced, and Mariya Pushkar’s goal finally settled the game in Moscow Oblast’s favour and secured first place in the tournament (Pushkar, too, played for Russia at last year’s U16 Euros).
The upshot of it all is that SKIF still lead the overall competition, have won the first two stages, but Moscow Oblast have now closed the gap a little bit. The Sergei Makarov Hockey School team went 4-2 in the tournament to take third place. There is at least one more stage to go, and I will provide details as soon as I know them.
There was also game action during the Olympic break in the amateur League of Women’s Hockey, as two groups held their second and final qualifying tournaments for this spring’s national championship. On February 10th to 11th, the Moscow-based group played its second round of qualifiers, with Grad-1 Moscow, Grad-2 Moscow, Spartanki Moscow and Tigritsy Amura Khabarovsk as the teams taking part (that group began the season with five teams, but Amazonki Moscow were expelled after the first round in November). Grad-1 are two-time defending national champions at the amateur level, boasting a lineup that includes a number of ex-national teamers (see photo at beginning of post), so it was not surprise that once again they have finished on top of this group and will be on their way to the national championship. Grad-1 took all three games of the second qualifying round, scoring 23 goals while giving up only one (to Spartanki’s Guzel Khairullina, for the record), to finish with an 6-0-0 overall record and a 50-1 GF-GA. Spartanki came in second with a 4-2-0 record, Grad-2 end up at 2-4-0 in third place, and the Far Easterners of Tigritsy Amura went winless in qualifying, finishing at 0-6-0.
On February 17th-18th, the Central Russian group in the league held their second qualifying round in Kazan. That group had a surprising first stage, as newcomers to the league Rost-Khimik Nizhny Novgorod went 4-0 to take the early lead. And Rost-Khimik proved in the second qualifying stage that it was no fluke, going 4-0 once again. Their toughest test came against Angely Kirov, whom they defeated 5-2. The Nizhny Novgorod team thus advances to the national tournament in their first season, finishing qualifying at 8-0. Forvard Kazan finished at 3-3-2 to place second, beating out Soyuz Penza (4-4-0) on goal difference. In fourth were Malakhit Yekaterinburg, who qualified for the nationals last season but finished 2017-18 qualifying with a disappointing 2-5-1 record. Angely, despite giving Rost-Khimik their toughest fight of the second round, went winless in qualifying and placed fifth, but did manage three ties in their eight games.
Rost-Khimik have some familiar names on the roster, by the way. Defender Larisa Teplygina played a number of pro seasons for SKIF Nizhny Novgorod in the Women’s Hockey League, and she led all players in the group this season with nine goals in the qualifying tournaments. And Rost-Khimik were joined for the second round of qualifying by forward Ulyana Myuller, who played for Russia at the 2013-14 U18 Women’s Worlds. Myuller scored four goals in four games for Rost-Khimik.
The results of those two tournaments mean that three of the six teams for the national amateur championship are now set: Rost-Khimik, Grad-1, and Grizli-1 Novosibirsk, whose qualifying campaign in the Siberian group wrapped up a few weeks ago. One more qualifying tournament is to be played, involving the teams from St. Petersburg and nearby regions. That tournament, to be played March 17th and 18th, will complete the field for the nationals; the four group winners will advance, as will the two best second-place teams. If my math is correct, Kuznechanka Novokuznetsk from the Siberian group are likely to be one of those second-place, and we will have to wait to find out about the other.
This upcoming weekend will see some amateur hockey action, as the Under-18 division of the League of Women’s Hockey holds the second qualifying tournament for its own national championship. This is the first season for the U18 division, and eight teams are involved, divided into two groups. Severyanka-2 Cherepovets and Pervomaiskie Lvitsy Korkino are the two group leaders after that first round, which was held back in October. A full recap of that tournament will be along next week!
Also along next week will be some discussion of the Women’s Hockey League, which swings back into action post-Olympics on Thursday. League-leaders Agidel Ufa will travel to Siberia to play a pair of games against Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, while Dynamo St. Petersburg play host to defending champions Tornado Moscow Oblast. And SKIF Nizhny Novgorod will be in Yekaterinburg to play SK Sverdlovsk Oblast. Another three series start early next week, and we’ll have full recaps of all the action next Tuesday.
A reminder that most Women’s Hockey League games stream live on Youtube; you can consult this article at The Ice Garden for links to the various teams’ channels (full disclosure: the article also says nice things about this here blog — much appreciated!).
And that’s it for this time — thank you for reading!