Women’s Hockey League Playoff Preview!
The 2017-18 Women’s Hockey League regular season came to an end this past week with a couple of two-game sets: Biryusa Krasnoyarsk beat Arktik-Universitet Ukhta 6-4 and 4-0, while Tornado Moscow Oblast tore up the league’s bottom club, SK Sverdlovsk Oblast, by scores of 14-2 and 13-2. Those two blowouts of SKSO allowed Tornado’s Anna Shokhina to secure her grip on the scoring title (she posted 11 points over the two games), and they also muddied the waters a bit when it comes to analyzing her team’s playoff prospects, as we shall see. However, the results had no effect whatsoever on the final standings, so we need not go into them in depth.
Instead, we look ahead to the first-ever Women’s Hockey League playoffs, which gets underway on Tuesday! So read on, as we check out the match-ups in the two semifinal series, and try to work out who the key players to watch will be!
(1) Agidel Ufa vs. (4) SKIF Nizhny Novgorod
Agidel, regular-season champions this season for the first time ever, bring a balanced team to the playoffs; they scored the second-most goals of any team (105) and gave up the second-fewest (39) in going 21-3 on the season. The attack is led by the redoubtable Olga Sosina (22 gp, 19-24-43), third in the league in points and fourth in goals despite being rested for her team’s last two regular-season games. With all due respect to Tornado’s Anna Shokhina (more on her in a little bit), I still think Sosina is the best player in the league; her combination of strength, speed, and sheer skill is unmatched. Slovakian forward Nicol Čupková was not far behind Sosina (24 gp, 15-22-37), and Yekaterina Lebedeva also contributed a point-per-game regular season (24 gp, 14-15-29). And we should not lose track of Alexandra Vafina, who was signed early in the season after wrapping up her career at the University of Calgary and posted 17 points in 20 games.
On defense, Anna Shibanova had the third most points among the league’s blueliners, at 24 gp, 4-15-19, while Mariya Pechnikova and Alexandra Kapustina chipped in six goals apiece. A bit more scoring from the back would certainly be welcome, but that will do just fine. Nor does Agidel have much to worry about in goal, where Anna Prugova had the second-highest sv% among goalies who played at least 150 minutes (.942 in 1159:06). That’s an especially nice number given that the team’s defence held opponents to only 22 shots per 60 minutes. To back up Prugova, Agidel have mid-season acquisition Mariya Sorokina, who was last year’s league sv% leader. So, as I said, a very solid situation for the Ufa side there.
Agidel’s only concern may the absence of a useful forward in Fanni Gasparics (24 gp, 7-16-23), who is away with the Hungarian national team at the Division 1A World Championship right now. On the other hand, Čupková seems to have opted to remain with Agidel for the playoffs, rather than join the Slovakian team at the same tournament, and that is certainly a welcome development for the Ufans.
As for SKIF, their main problem in this series is going to be that, while they have a lineup full of estimable players, they are not as strong as Agidel in any aspect of the game. It is no surprise that Agidel won all four meetings between the teams in 2017-18 (although one of those wins required overtime), and outscored SKIF by 19-5 in doing so. Nonetheless, there are some things to like about the Nizhny Novgorod team, most of them having to do with youth (a reminder here that SKIF’s U18 team is the four-time defending Russian champion for that age level). Up front, the team was led by 19-year-old Landish Falyakhova (24 gp, 9-18-27) and 17-year-old Oxana Bratishcheva (23 gp, 12-12-24). I should also mention 18-year-old Viktoriya Kulishova, who scored 5-10-15 in 24 games (decent, but not spectacular), but earned herself a ticket to the Olympic Games, where she scored one of the Russian team’s most important goals.
At the back, SKIF have a bit of a problem going into this series. Oddly enough, it is the same issue that Agidel have up front, namely an absent Hungarian. Franciska Kiss-Simon led the SKIF defenders in scoring this season by a mile at 24 gp, 4-12-16 (second was 16-year-old Yelena Provorova, with four points in 24 games). But Kiss-Simon is wearing the captain’s letter for Team Hungary at the Div. 1A Worlds, and thus unavailable to her club. However, the Nizhny Novgorod side’s youthful goaltending tandem is a very decent one, with 19-year-old Valeriya Tarakanova (.922 sv% in 1215:44 this season) likely to get all the starts. Should she falter, 17-year-old rookie Diana Farkhutdinova is the backup (.909 sv% in 207:28).
Not that SKIF are entirely a youth team; they do have some key veteran players as well. Karoliina Rantamäki, who played for Finland at teach of the first five Olympic women’s hockey tournaments (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014), and has been at SKIF since 2007, scored 12 points in 16 games this season — she is still a tremendous player. And last summer SKIF astutely signed former Russian national-teamer Olga Semenets out of amateur hockey, and she tied for second on the team this season in goals with nine. Even if four of those goals came in one game, and that against lowly SK Sverdlovsk Oblast, Semenets still had an impressive 2017-18.
(2) Tornado Moscow Oblast vs. (3) Dynamo St. Petersburg
For those who have been following the Women’s Hockey League for any length of time, mention of Tornado Moscow Oblast instantly brings to mind that team’s “big five.” Forwards Anna Shokhina, Alevtina Shtaryova, and Yelena Dergachyova, along with defenders Nina Pirogova and Angelina Goncharenko, have been mauling opponents for several seasons now, and they were at it again in 2017-18. Shokhina, as mentioned, won the scoring title, coming from well back with a run of 32 points in her team’s last eight games (her final line: 24 gp, 22-26-58). Even if we discount the 11 points she put up in last week’s hammerings of SKSO, that’s will 21 points in six games — very impressive. Shtaryova, meanwhile, won the league goalscoring title (24 gp, 23-18-41), although again she was helped by that closing series against SKSO, where she scored five times. Dergachyova was second in league points, with a line of 14-33-47 in 24 games. Tornado scored the most goals of any team this season (115), and the reasons are not hard to find (again, a small asterisk here due to the 27-goal outburst against SKSO last week).
The Moscow Oblast side, however, does have one serious injury concern heading into the playoffs, as forward Lyudmila Belyakova hurt her knee in late March, and her post-season participation is very much in question. Belyakova was a little off her usual pace this season (17 gp, 10-5-15), but is key part of Tornado’s attack, and will be missed if she can’t go. On the other hand, Tornado seem to have uncovered a budding star in 15-year-old (!) Yelizaveta Shkaleva, who joined the lineup just after New Year’s and has already shown marked progress. In the nine games she played, Shkaleva scored seven goals and added two assists (yes, she scored four times last week against SKSO, but still). Definitely a name to keep in mind.
Back to the “big five,” and both Pirogova and Goncharenko — the latter in particular — scored just a bit less than normal this season, although they still did very decently. Pirogova was second in league points among defenders with a line of 24 gp, 8-15-23, while Goncharenko scored just one goal all season, although she did add 16 assists in 20 games. No worries, though; their team-mate Mariya Batalova arrived on the scene in a big way, leading the Women’s Hockey League in goals and points by a rearguard (24 gp, 9-16-25). Last year, she scored 7-12-19 in 36 games, so this was a big break-out season for the 21-year-old.
With that kind of scoring from both forwards and defense, goaltending almost becomes a secondary matter for Tornado, but they do have a resolute starter in Nadezhda Alexandrova (.907 sv% in 1239:54), and a more than capable backup in Yelizaveta Kondakova (.938 sv% in 197:44).
Tornado may need all of their vaunted offense when they come up against Dynamo St. Petersburg, because Dynamo gave up the fewest goals of any team in the league this season: just 35 in 24 games. The main reason for that performance dwells between the posts of the Dynamo goal, in the person of 18-year-old goalie Valeriya Merkusheva. Merkusheva was brought in by Dynamo last summer from SKSO, and proceeded to play the second most minutes of any goalie in the league (1293:19), while posting the best sv% of any netminder who played more than 150 minutes (.952). Merkusheva was a huge factor in Dynamo managing to split the season series against Tornado, with each team winning once at home and once away. It is hard to overstate how good Merkusheva is, but further proof can be found in how quickly she took the Dynamo starting job away from the above-mentioned Mariya Sorokina, who was the best goalie in the league last season. Dynamo do have a worry if Merkusheva gets hurt, since current backup Irina Kostina has not played a minute this season, although she was decent enough in 2016-17 (.917 sv% in 8 games).
Dynamo are not nearly as strong when it comes to scoring as they are in goal; the team finished fifth in the seven-team league in goals scored, with 66. Diana Kanayeva was Dynamo’s only point-per-game player (24 gp, 8-16-24), although Yevgeniya Dyupina (24 gp, 9-14-23) and the veteran Yekaterina Smolina (24 gp, 13-9-22) were very close. Dynamo can also boast a couple of excellent defenders in Yekaterina Nikolayeva (23 gp, 5-5-10) and Czechia’s Aneta Tejralová (24 gp, 5-12-17). Nikolayeva, it may be noted, led the league in penalty minutes this season, with 88, although that was primarily the result of a couple of nasty incidents in games against Arktik-Universitet Ukhta, who were something of a rough team this season. And she had just 34 minutes in 36 games last season, so we should not read too much into it.
The semifinal round will be played best-of-three, with Game 1 at the home of the lower seed on Tuesday, and Games 2 and (if necessary) 3 played at the higher seed’s rink on Friday and Saturday. What can we expect from these series? Well, the higher seeds in both are so for a reason, and should prevail, although in a best-of-three format things can go wrong very very quickly. I think that the Tornado-Dynamo series will likely be the tougher of the two; Agidel, I suspect, are just too good all-round for SKIF’s young team. But we will see!
And finally a reminder that these games will be watchable online! The opener between Agidel and SKIF will be broadcast here, while Dynamo’s YouTube channel should be carrying their game against Tornado. When the series shift venue, look for broadcasts at Agidel’s YouTube channel, and at Tornado’s.
Thank you for reading, and enjoy the playoffs!