28 February 2020
It’s playoff time! The men may have narrowly missed out on a place in the KHL playoffs, but our women’s team enjoyed a storming season in the WHL and is off to post season.
The KRS Vanke Rays became the first foreign team in the Russian Women’s Hockey League this season, following the demise of the CWHL. An impressive regular season campaign saw Brian Idalski’s team set club and league attendance records at its Shenzhen home as fans thrilled to the girls’ charge up the table. At the end of the regular season, the Rays sat proudly in second place and can have every hope of ending their debut season with a trophy.
First, though, there’s the small matter of a playoff semi-final against Tornado Moscow Region. This mini-series will be played entirely in Dmitrov due to the on-going public health situation in China and the first team to claim two victories will advance to the Grand Final. And there are plenty of reasons for our Lady Dragons to be optimistic ahead of the showdown against one of Russia’s most titled women’s teams.
The teams have met four times this season, and KRS won all four of them. In China, the scorelines were decisive – 5-0 and 6-2; in Dmitrov it was tighter, but the Rays took the verdict twice with a 3-2 overtime success and a 3-0 victory. Even without home ice advantage, our girls have proved that they can more than match a roster stacked with Russian international talent.
Over the course of the season, the Vanke Rays have dominated the WHL in scoring. With 109 goals in 28, they’ve found the net far more frequently than Tornado, which managed just 63 tallies. Not surprisingly, then, there are KRS names to be found near the top of all the stat charts.
USA international Alex Carpenter leads the way. She has 53 (21+32) points from her 27 games this season, putting her out in front in the scoring race. She produced more assists than anyone else in the league and the only player who matched her goal tally was team-mate Rachel Llanes. The pair also made an impression for Team East at the All-Star Game last month, helping to defeat the team West in the showcase event.
The team has also been strong on defense, allowing just 39 goals. Xuiteng Qi, part of the Chinese Olympic roster in Vancouver 10 years ago, had 12 assists, the third highest among blueliners in the whole league. Colleague Zhixin Liu ended with a plus/minus of 29, second only to Maria Batalova in the regular season.
And the goaltending has been solid as well. Kimberly Newell’s 12 wins are second to none in this league, while her GAA of 1.52 places third overall. The 24-year-old Princeton graduate was another All Star this season and has high hopes of adding a second career trophy to her resume after helping Canada’s U18s to World U18 Championship glory in 2013.
Tornado has been a force in Russian women’s hockey since the game first took off. Nine times a national champion, the team never finished lower than second before an unexpected glitch last season left it out of the playoffs.
The response from Andrei Chistyakov’s team was to trust in youth, with a spine of international talent to support the next generation. A long-term member of the national team coaching program in Russia, Chistyakov has worked extensively with the country’s U18s and is now behind the bench for the women’s team. His roster was built around players like two-time Olympian Anna Shokhina, international team-mate Alevtina Shtaryova and former New York Riveter Lyudmila Belyakova on offense. Nina Pirogova, a World Championship bronze medallist, leads the defense. But there’s also a crop of teenage prospects making an impact, with five of this year’s World U18 bronze medal team featuring for Tornado.
When and where
The semi-final series starts in Dmitrov on Friday, Feb. 28. Game two will be played on Sunday, March 1 and, if necessary, a decider will take place on March 2. The winner will advance to the grand final, a best-of-five series against Agidel Ufa or Biryusa Krasnoyarsk.