KRS Vanke Rays 0 Team Russia 1
Friday’s eagerly awaited exhibition game between the Vanke Rays and Russia’s national team lived up to its billing. Although the encounter was low scoring, there was no shortage of excitement and high-quality play from both teams in what was a de facto All-Star Game for the Women’s Hockey League.
The two rosters were stacked with leaders from this season’s WHL – plus one new face. The big news for the Vanke Rays was announced shortly before the puck dropped on this game. Our girls welcomed a new signing, Samantha Hanson, who signed up after three seasons playing in Sweden. During her time on defense at Djurgardens, she picked up a Swedish championship medal – but her connections with our club go back a little further.
From 2012-2016, Sam played NCAA at the University of North Dakota, where she was coached by Brian Idalski, who is now behind the bench for us. That connection surely played a big part in persuaded the 27-year-old to get back on the ice after spending this season working with sports analysis company InStat and supporting the PWPHA’s efforts to establish a viable women’s pro league in North America.
Hanson’s first experience of hockey in Russia was a bit special. Up against a national team that reached the World Championship semi-finals in 2019, the last time the tournament could be played, she got valuable minutes of game time against the best that our league has to offer. From the opening moments, the action flowed from end to end with both teams creating chances. The Lady Dragons’ best opportunity of the first period came late in the play when Alexandra Carpenter – one of several players on our team hoping to remind the selectors back home of her international credentials – caused chaos in front of Valeriya Merkusheva’s net. It took a sprawling block from Russia’s Ekaterina Nikolayeva to deny Leah Lum a shooting chance and when the puck dropped for Jessica Wong, her effort was charged down as the Russian defense hung on grimly.
The start of the second brought a big blow for our girls when goalie Noora Raty was stretchered off the ice with a lower body injury. There was no foul play about the injury, which appeared to come after our Finnish international stretched to reach a shot flying in from the left-hand circle. We’re still waiting for more information about Noora’s condition and hope to see her back on the ice as soon as possible.
Raty’s injury brought Kimberly Newell to the crease and almost immediately she found herself facing the Russian power play. However, the best chance of that spell went to KRS when Alena Mills went on a short-handed rush and forced a big save out of Merkusheva. The rebound almost set up Emily Costales, but the puck got caught up in her skates and the chance was lost. However, Newell was soon in business, answering the question when clubmate Alexander Vafina tested her out with a dangerous shot. Earlier in the week, these two went head-to-head in the WHL’s “Babes of Glory” quiz show; today they were battling it out on the ice. After dealing with some ‘friendly fire’, Newell also impressed when she denied Nina Pirogova.
The Lady Dragons also created chances, most notably when Rachel Llanes and Hannah Miller combined on a well-worked break. Once again, though Merkusheva had the answer. The SKIF goalie was on her way to a second shut-out this season against the Vanke Rays and once again showed her class at the highest level.
And that made the difference in the third period. Russia broke the deadlock early in the final frame through Polina Bolgarova and then had to absorb long periods of pressure as KRS battled to tie the game. Even a 5-on-3 power play for the Rays could not bring a breakthrough. Merkusheva pulled off a huge double save to frustrate Megan Bozek and Rachel Llanes and the penalties were killed. There was more to come from the Rays: a blocker save to deny Mills, a Kaitlin Tse shot redirected agonizingly past the post by Carpenter. However, the Russians held on to claim a tight verdict. The teams are scheduled to meet again on Saturday in Stupino.