Story of the week
Women’s Hockey Update: October 23rd, 2017 | CONWAY'S RUSSIAN HOCKEY BLOG
In the autumn of 2016, the Russian women's national team visited the United States to take on clubs from the NWHL, and came away at the end with a respectable 2-3 record.
The women’s hockey world has spent a lot of time over the past few months focusing on the growth of the the game in South Korea and China. There’s also been some attention paid to the troubles in Sweden, and lots of people saw USA take out Canada with prejudice on Sunday afternoon.
But another team that underperformed at the 2017 Worlds was Team Russia. Over the last couple of weeks they’ve been in the US playing against three of the four NWHL teams. The result? A perfect 6-0 record.
While Russia won bronze at Worlds in 2016, they came in fifth in 2017. In and of itself this wouldn’t be the most shocking result except that they were knocked out of the medal round by Team Germany. Nobody who watched Worlds would tell you with a straight face that Germany was an overall better team than Russia—they won using strategy and Jenny Harss, not skill—but on top of the embarrassment of getting knocked out by the Cinderella story of the tournament, it served as a neon blinking arrow pointing at Russia’s weaknesses. Namely: a team with a well-coached, cohesive defense and a hot goalie could squeeze the life out of their offense like a boa constrictor.
Part of the difficulty, then, of evaluating any changes they’ve made is that this is NWHL preseason. Due to centralization, not only is there a significant amount of talent missing from the league, but rosters have changed around a lot to fill gaps left by departing players. Several teams have new coaches, and they haven’t had more than a handful of practices together to let new rosters gel. Also, while Fitzgerald, Rossman, and Ott are all good goaltenders, none of them are national team-level talent. In contrast, German goalie Harss is arguably the most underrated goalie in international hockey right now. (Side note: as Nafio said once, it is a crime that the lack of top-level worlds will deny her the stage she deserves this year).
Russia has never been a bad team—remember, they beat bronze-winning Finland in the round-robin, wobbly net-pegs aside—and they’ve got some standout talent in players like Olga Sosina, Anna Shokhina, and Lyudmila Belyakova. While there wasn’t a huge amount of roster turnover between Worlds this year and this series, there were some changes. Galina Skiba moving from forward to defense, and then becoming Russia’s highest-scoring defender against the NWHL, is especially notable. Scoring was an issue for Russia at both 2016 and 2017 Worlds, but it sure wasn’t on the NWHL tour. Russia’s top line of Anna Shokhina, Alevtina Shtaryova, and Yelena Dergachyova ran the table against the NWHL, with Shokhina’s 13 points leading the team. Oh, and Shokhina and Shtaryova are both 20, and Dergachyova is 21.
The fact that Russia just tore through three women’s pro teams with a top line consisting of only one player legal to drink in the US is definitely encouraging, and they should definitely feel proud. The question is whether or not this is a sign they’ve taken a real step forward as a team. I’m not sure we know the answer to that question yet.
For anyone who wants to do an in-depth study, all six games are currently available on the NWHL’s website (some have been moved to “Archived Games”).
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