Women’s Hockey Update: April 3rd, 2018
There was a great deal of excitement in the Women’s Hockey League this past week, as the regular season neared its end and the playoff picture clarified itself. Away from the team standings, the individual scoring race took a dramatic turn as well. And even amongst the non-playoff sides, there was plenty to talk about, as one club in particular looked to end a years-long run of futility. Read on…
SK Sverdlovsk Oblast have dwelt at the bottom of the Women’s Hockey League standings for the past few years, without a win, or even a point, since they were playing as Spartak-Merkury Yekaterinburg in 2013-14. This past week’s home pair of games against second-from-bottom Arktik-Universitet Ukhta thus represented SKSO’s best chance of breaking that sad streak in 2017-18. And oh my goodness, they came close to doing it, too.
Game 1 saw a rarity: an early SKSO lead, and by two goals! 17-year-old Nadezhda Volf, with her first career Women’s Hockey League goal, and team captain Yekaterina Solovyova put SKSO up 2-0 early in the first, before Arktik-Universitet came roaring back. Goals from Alsu Rakhimova and Oxana Afonina tied things at two apiece after twenty minutes, and then Afonina scored again early in the second period for a 3-2 Arktik-Universitet lead. But, back came SKSO this time, as a pair of markers from Mariya Kokoshkina made it 4-3 for the home side heading into the final 20 minutes. When that lead was still standing with just seven minutes to play, the long losing streak looked in jeopardy. However, Arktik-Universitet rallied; first it was Natalya Vorontsova tying the game, and just a minute later Fanuza Kadirova put the visitors ahead. Less than two minutes after that, Arktik-Universitet sealed the deal, as Liana Ganeyeva gave the Ukhtans a 6-4 lead, and that would stand up as the final score. So close, but not quite enough in the end, for SKSO.
Game 2 would be, if anything, even more heartbreaking for the home side. Once again, SKSO found themselves an early 2-0 lead (Sofya Senchukova and Alexandra Neryuyeva their goalscorers), and this time they made it stand up until the middle of the second period. Then, after Kadirova had tallied to bring Arktik-Universitet to within one, Kokoshkina scored her third of the series to restore SKSO’s two-goal lead. With ten minutes left in the third, the score remained 3-1 for the home team, and surely now at least a point was at hand. Not so. Fanuza Kadirova is a fantastic player, and she once again brought Arktik-Universitet to within a goal. And this time, the visitors completed the comeback, as Diana Bulatova tied the game with four minutes to play. Worse was to come for SKSO; just 18 seconds after that equalizer, Karina Verkhovtseva scored what would be Arktik-Universitet’s winner in a 4-3 final score. Once again, so close to ending the losing streak for SKSO, although it must be said that much of the credit belongs to their goalie, former Russian national-teamer Yuliya Leskina; Arktik-Universitet led on the shot clock by 51-15.
Coming into their final four games of the regular season, Biryusa Krasnoyarsk had a simple proposition before them: win all four to have any chance of making the playoffs. No easy task, particularly as their opponent for the first two would be defending champions Tornado Moscow Oblast, although at least Biryusa would face them in the friendly confines of Krasnoyarsk. And the home team was up to the challenge in the opening game. Yelizaveta Zenchenko gave Tornado the lead three minutes in, but just 62 seconds later Biryusa found an equalizer through veteran forward Oxana Tretyakova, who played for Russia at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. In the second period, the game was taken over by Biryusa’s Valeriya Pavlova, currently the league’s top goal-scorer. She tallied twice to give her side a 3-1 lead, and then extended it to 4-1 by completing her hat-trick early in the third. Alevtina Shtaryova scored for Tornado shortly thereafter, but that was as close as the defending champions would get. It finished 4-2 for Biryusa, and their playoff hopes were still alive.
However, in the second game of the series, Tornado’s quality asserted itself. Yelizaveta Shkaleva, just 15 years old and two games removed from her first professional goal, scored her second a minute and a half in, and Shtaryova doubled Tornado’s lead before the end of the first period. They kept coming in the second, as first Yelena Dergachyova and then Anna Shokhina found the Biryusa net to give Tornado a 4-0 lead after 40 minutes. Back to work went Shkaleva and Shtaryova in the third, as each scored her second goal of the game, and now it was 6-0 for the visitors. Finally, with 11 minutes to go, Alexandra Budanova scored to make it 6-1 and ruin Yelizaveta Kondakova’s shutout bid, but by then Biryusa must have known that the game, and thus the playoffs, were out of reach. It finished 6-1, and what a game it was for Tornado’s Shokhina; in addition to her goal, she posted four assists, and that catapulted her into first place in the points race. Biryusa’s loss, meanwhile, formally clinched a playoff spot for SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, who will join Agidel Ufa, Tornado, and Dynamo St. Petersburg in the Women’s Hockey League’s inaugural post-season tournament.
SKIF knew that they had their playoff berth sewn up before they hosted Agidel Ufa yesterday and today, but they still had an outside chance to move up to third or even second place. And they may have sensed an opportunity, as Agidel, with the top seed secured, chose not to bring the formidable Olga Sosina on the road trip, presumably to give her a pre-playoff break (in doing so, they conceded the scoring race to Tornado’s Shokhina). But Agidel have other weapons too, and it was Yekaterina Lebedeva who gave them a 1-0 lead early in the first game. SKIF have had a fine season, however, and they got themselves a tying goal through Landysh Falyakhova not long before the end of the first period. In the second, SKIF took the lead, as Mariya Belova found the net, and that 2-1 score was still in effect as the third period wound towards its close. However, Agidel found their answer, and it was Alexandra Vafina. Controversially (or at least puzzlingly) left off the Russian Olympic team this year, the former University of Calgary forward tied the game for Agidel with six minutes to play, and she wasn’t finished; it would be Vafina once again who popped up to win it for the visitors a minute and a half into overtime. The result set in the stone the first-round playoff matchups, and we will have more on that further down.
If the first game between the two teams had been a near-run affair, the second… was not, or at least not so much. Slovakian sniper Nicol Čupková gave Agidel a 1-0 lead just 36 seconds in, and they extended that advantage to 2-0 through Alexandra Kapustina before the end of the first period. In the middle frame, Polina Bolgareva pulled SKIF back to within one, but Agidel ran away with the game in the third. Former SKIF forward Yelizaveta Rodnova made the score 3-1, and two more Agidel goals in two minutes in the back half of the period — Anna Shibanova and Elina Mitrofanova the scorers — put the result beyond any doubt. It finished 5-1, and Agidel can feel good about taking five out of six points from a pesky opponent even in the absence of Sosina. Especially so, as Agidel will face SKIF again in the first round of the playoffs.
The regular season is not quite finished, but all of the major questions have been answered (you can see the standings here). The big one, of course: who will face whom in the first round of the playoffs, and the answer to that is as follows (seedings in brackets):
- (1) Agidel Ufa vs. (4) SKIF Nizhny Novgorod
- (2) Tornado Moscow Oblast vs. (3) Dynamo St. Petersburg
We will have a full preview of the first round shortly before it begins, but in the meantime there are still a couple of regular-season series to be played. On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Biryusa Krasnoyarsk will play host to Arktik-Universitet Ukhta, while Tornado Moscow Oblast travel to Yekaterinburg to take on SK Sverdlovsk Oblast. Links are to the YouTube channels that should be streaming those games.
And the scoring race, or at least the regular season edition, has been won. For the second straight season, it is Tornado’s Anna Shokhina who takes home the crown, and she has done so in dramatic fashion. Shokhina was well behind Agidel’s Olga Sosina, but a stupendous run of 21 points in six games gives the Tornado star a line of 22 gp, 18-29-47, four points ahead of her rival. And Sosina’s regular season is over (she’s at 22 gp, 19-24-43), so she will have no opportunity to catch up.
As for the goals race, that is currently being led by Biryusa’s Valeriya Pavlova (21 goals in 22 games). That puts her two ahead of Sosina, who as noted has finished her regular season, and three ahead of Tornado’s Shokhina and Alevtina Shtaryova. Those latter two do still have two games to play, and against lowly SK Sverdlovsk Oblast at that, so there could easily be some goals for them there. However, Pavlova’s Biryusa side also has two games left, against non-playoff opposition in Arktik-Universitet Ukhta, so she will have an opportunity to defend her lead.
That’s about it for this week! Next time, we will update you on the remaining games of the regular season, and as mentioned there will be a playoff preview along at some point this week. We are also now less than two weeks away from the opening of the 2018 U16 Girls’ European Championship (April 15th-19th in Finland), so we will be watching for possible news about the Russian roster. Thank you for reading!