The Women’s Hockey League at the Halfway Point, Part 1.
At the halfway point? Actually, a little past it now; the Russian Women’s Hockey League (the ZhHL) resumed action after its own international break this past week, with each team having played 14 games of the 28-game regular season at that point. Everybody is at 15 or 16 games now, and today we’ll check in with the league’s top four teams, and see how their seasons have gone so far. Read on, for progress reports!
Agidel Ufa (12-3, 36 pts., GF-GA 52-18): Agidel bounced back very nicely after being swept in two games at home by Dynamo St. Petersburg to begin 2019-20, losing only a single game to Tornado in the rest of the first half of the season (weirdly, all three of Agidel’s losses have come at home). They passed what now looks like their major test of the first half, defeating KRS Vanke Rays 3-0 and 4-1 in mid-October. Agidel hit the halfway mark tied for the league-lead in Goals For, and alone in first in Goals Against. They are well-set to challenge for the vaunted “three-peat,” although KRS Vanke Rays will pose a very stiff challenge indeed.
As far as individual performances are concerned, it is of course the redoubtable Olga Sosina leading the way (15 gp, 14-10-24); she currently sits first in the league in goals and second in points. Czech national-team captain Alena Mills is also topping the point-per-game mark for Agidel, scoring 6-11-17 in 15 contests. The goaltending duo of Anna Prugova (9 gp, 94.87 sv%) and Mariya Sorokina (6 gp, 94.3 sv%) has been red-hot as well; both ‘tenders are top-five in sv%, and they are first and third respectively in that category among goalies who have played at least six games. Mariya Batalova is tied for second in defence points (15 gp, 0-10-10) — this remains the league’s best roster, top to bottom.
KRS Vanke Rays Shenzhen (12-4, 34 pts, GF-GA 59-25): The league’s new Chinese entry stumbled out of the gate by losing their first two games to Biryusa, but everything since then has suggested that KRS Vanke Rays are a serious title contender. Only the defending champions, Agidel, have beaten the Shenzhen side since those opening games, taking both meetings in Ufa in mid-October. The two teams will meet again on January 18th and 19th in China, and those will be must-watch games. Vanke Rays particularly served notice with a late-October sweep of a much-improved Gorny St. Petersburg team by a combined score (over two games) of 17-2.
And Vanke Rays strengthened their roster over the break, with the long-awaited return to the roster of all-time great Finnish goalie Noora Räty, as well as experienced CWHL defender Jessica Wong and American national-team blueliner Megan Bozek. Vanke Rays were already very solid at the back, with goalies Kimberly Newell (10 gp, 93.6 sv%) and He Siye (5 gp, 96.4 sv%) doing a great job, and defender Liu Zhixin tied for second in the league in blueline points (15 gp, 4-6-10). Up front, there’s Alexandra Carpenter, who’s merely leading the league in points 16 gp, 12-18-30), and Rachel Llanes who’s tied for second (16 gp, 11-10-21). This team is very powerful indeed.
Tornado Moscow Oblast (8-8, 28 pts., GF-GA 33-29): They’re still not the Tornado of old, but there have been some good signs for the former champions in 2019-20, starting with a first victory over arch-rivals Agidel since 2018-19. They have been swept by SKIF (to open the season), Dynamo, and KRS Vanke Rays, but took two of two off of Gorny and Biryusa in the season’s first half. Not bad, although as mentioned Tornado are still some distance from what they used to be, and a return to the playoffs is far from guaranteed.
And despite losing prolific forward Yelena Dergachyova this off-season (she is on maternity leave), Tornado’s big guns up front are continuing to fire. Anna Shokhina is tied for third in the league in points (16 gp, 11-10-21), while defender Nina Pirogova is tied for second in scoring among blueliners (16 gp, 2-8-10). Goalie Yelizaveta Kondakova took over for the retired Nadezhda Alexandrova this off-season and has done very well too; she has a 94.3 sv% through 12 games, and a league-leading five shutouts. And very good news for Tornado arrived early this month, as they welcomed forward Lyudmila Belyakova back to the lineup after a season and a half off on maternity leave. Belyakova potted a goal and an assist in her first game back, on Wednesday, and will provide a significant boost to Tornado down the stretch (and possibly to the Russian national team as well).
Biryusa Krasnoyarsk (9-7, 25 pts., GF-GA 41-40): They’ve got some good young talent on board now, like forwards Yekaterina Dobrodeyeva and Anna Timofeyeva, but this is still Valeriya Pavlova’s team in 2019-20, and there she is tied for second in goals in the ZhHL with a line of 12-7-19 in 16 games. The other big name on roster, experienced national-team goalie Nadezhda Morozova, has been just a hair off her usual pace for Biryusa this season (11 gp, 90.9 sv%), but she’s also been providing useful shelter for young netminders Alyona Ashina (5 gp, 92.1 sv%) and 15-year-old Darya Gredzen (4 gp, 92.5 sv%) as they go about learning the ropes.
Biryusa have been up and down a bit in terms of results, although the first half ended well enough, with four straight road victories against Dynamo and SKIF. Biryusa, however, could not repeat their season-opening sweep of KRS Vanke Rays, dropping their first game of the season’s second half today to the Chinese club. Still, Biryusa look pretty good for a second straight playoff berth, assuming that the injury bug does not bite too badly.
Thank you for reading! In a couple of days, we’ll look at the league’s other four teams in Part 2 of this series.