This weekend, the Markham Thunder will play their first home series at the Thornhill Community Centre, facing off against Kunlun Red Star.
For those who have been under a rock, or maybe only read women's hockey articles during the season, KRS is the first of two expansion teams in the CWHL this season. Both Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays are based out of Shenzen, China. Between them they include most of the current members of the Chinese women's national team, currently ranked 18th in the world, as well as some of the best North American players from this year's draft, and members of the Finnish women's national team (more on that later). This is the first time the CWHL has expanded outside of North America, and everyone wants to know, is the experiment going to work?
Saturday is our first opportunity to watch Kunlun in CWHL play—while the CWHL season technically started last weekend, only four of the seven teams had games. There are lots of questions as to how this team is going to look against a more seasoned professional team. What are their strong points, where are their weaknesses? How does Markham in particular match up?
Last Friday, I spent three hours in traffic en route to Providence, Rhode Island so I could watch Kunlun’s 8-0 preseason win over Brown University. It was their second (apart from a few games against their fellow Chinese team, the Vanke Rays), preceded by a 6-0 win over the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. While a NCAA Division I team is not equivalent competition to the CWHL, it did give me the opportunity to take some notes on Red Star’s play.
Brown’s offense is not going to strike fear into the heart of a woman who beat Team Canada at Worlds this year, and Noora Räty easily pitched a shutout. She didn’t have to try all that hard, but during Brown’s few threatening scoring chances, she made the saves and looked frighteningly calm while doing it. Räty’s the best starting goalie in the CWHL this season (I think she’s the best in the world; Nafio thinks I’m underselling Shannon Szabados), and Kunlun’s got a huge leg up just having her in net.
Those few threatening scoring chances were mainly because Kunlun took a hilarious number of penalties. I’m not sure if it was that players who’ve been in pro hockey for a few years are unused to how tightly body contact is called in the NCAA, or if discipline is going to be an ongoing problem for this team. It didn’t bite them this time—frequently, they would spend the majority of their penalty kill in Brown’s zone—but getting in that kind of shorthanded trouble against a team like les Canadiennes would be a very different situation. Ann-Sophie Bettez would welcome the opportunity to pick apart that penalty kill.
As for the skaters, it’s the forward corps who are the most impressive. In the absence of centralized Olympians, Kelli Stack is going to make a hell of a lot of noise. She had a hat trick last Friday, playing on a line with fellow former USWNT player Shiann Darkangelo, and looked dominant on every shift. Stack was a surprise cut from the US Olympic roster; look for her to destroy some goalies this year in revenge.
Other than Stack and Darkangelo, Kunlun also features former USWNT players like Stephanie Anderson and Zoe Hickel, and recent NCAA grads like defender Taylor Marchin (currently out with a meniscus injury) and former Brown captain Madison Woo (who received quite the welcome at her alma mater). In terms of former CWHL players, Jessica Wong has moved to Kunlun from the Calgary Inferno. She’s capable of playing forward and defense, which provides additional flexibility, although Kunlun currently has her at forward. Also, yesterday news broke that two-time Finnish Olympian Annina Rajahuhta will be joining Kunlun for the season. Rajahuhta played for the Burlington Barracudas of the CWHL in the 2011-12 season, and since then has played at home in Finland for the Espoo Blues.
Former Boston Blades/Pride player Rachel Llanes is another North American player on the roster to keep an eye on. Llanes is ridiculously quick, and has that William Nylander-esque ability to blow through defenders and carry the puck into the offensive zone with what seems like no effort at all. Despite her size—she’s 5’3’’—she doesn’t shy away from physical play. I loved watching her in Boston, and with Kunlun, I expect she’ll have an increased role. It helps not having half the USWNT above you in the depth chart.
The most notable difference between the Chinese women’s national team players and their North American counterparts was skating and speed. Generally, the Chinese players were slower and not as nimble, and there seemed to be a visible difference in conditioning level. Considering that this was in early October, before the season has even started, I don’t think that’s a reason for concern—after all, the reason to mix North American players in on the roster is to help the Chinese players improve, and conditioning is a thing that comes with time. The youth of the Chinese players is also a factor—with a few exceptions, they are all in their late teens/early 20s, while the North American players skew older. However, the Chinese players did not look out of their depth compared to Brown’s skaters, and that’s a very good sign.
Beiwei Yu, who played for Team China at the Vancouver Olympics and spent a season in the Western Women’s Hockey League ten years ago, stood out on defense. As one of the oldest players on Kunlun’s roster, Yu comes in with a lot more experience than her teammates, and it shows in terms of defensive poise and ability. Yu holds an unique position on the Kunlun roster as a Chinese player with both Olympic and professional experience, and can hopefully serve as a resource for her Chinese teammates in a way a player like Räty can’t. She’s Team China’s captain, and I’d look for her to play a leadership role for Kunlun as well this upcoming season. Another member of the Vancouver Olympic team on defense is Zhixin Liu, who has showed a nice offensive touch in Kunlun’s preseason. Liu had a goal against Brown and two goals against UBC; we’ll see if she can continue that streak against Markham.
Meanwhile, Markham has already played two games of regular-season CWHL action—they split last weekend’s series with the Toronto Furies—so we’ve got a better idea of what to expect from them. Their chief offensive weapons are former Canadian women’s national team player Jamie Lee Rattray, and Kristen Barbara, who scored against the Furies last weekend. Markham has two solid goalies in Erica Howe and Liz Knox, and while I’d give an edge to Howe, it’s likely we’ll see them both this weekend as Markham likes to platoon their goalies.
They also have former NWHL players Devon Skeats and Nicole Kosta, both of whom will be facing off against some old teammates. Kosta played on the Connecticut Whale with both Stack and Hickel, and Skeats and Darkangelo won the Isobel Cup together last year as members of the Buffalo Beauts.
Will Markham’s forwards get a goal past Noora Räty? Will Kunlun’s penalty problems continue? How will the Red Star skaters handle a real live professional women’s team, instead of a college squad? I can only guess at the answers to these questions. The games are Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 12:30pm, both at the Thornhill Community Centre. If you can’t make it there live, Saturday night’s game will be streamed online. Put the Maple Leafs-Senators game on a second screen and watch this instead.