After a superlative regular season, the KRS Vanke Rays are ready to complete their title defense in the 2021 Women’s Hockey League playoffs. The post season starts on Wednesday with a best-of-three series against Biryusa. The winners will advance to a best-of-five final against either Agidel or SKIF.
A year ago, the Dragons made light work of the playoffs. Despite being forced to play every game on the opposition’s ice, our team powered to victory without dropping a single game. However, as everyone knows, defending a title is even harder than winning it in the first place.
Depth and dominance – the story of the regular season
That’s why the Rays’ performance in the regular season was so impressive. Despite the disruption of relocating from Shenzhen to Stupino, and despite the obvious challenges of reuniting a multi-national roster at a time when international travel was severely limited, results this season exceeded last year. The Dragons lost just twice in 28 games. Of those 26 victories, all but two came in regulation time. KRS scored more goals than anyone else in the league, and allowed far fewer than the opposition – just 29 in 28 games, an astonishingly miserly defense at any level.
The league-leading contribution of players like Alex Carpenter, Megan Bozek and Kimberly Newell has been widely discussed on this site and elsewhere, but the depth on this roster is also striking. For example, while Newell posted the best goaltending stats of the WHL season, second on the list came Milena Tretyak. The 20-year-old Russian netminder joined us in the summer and was expected to use this season as a development year, learning from Kimberly and Noora Raty. Instead, she finished with a GAA of 1.01 after stopping 93.58% of the shots fired at her.
Tretyak was not the only new face to make an impact. Alexandra Vafina, an established star with Team Russia, also joined the Dragons. After playing most of her career on the first line of her teams, Alexandra found herself in a different role here, as part of the supporting cast on a stacked offense. That didn’t stop her collecting a handy 20 points on the ice, and playing a useful mentoring role off it. Czech center Alena Mills had a similar season after joining from Agidel. The raw numbers – 23 (10+13) points in 29 games – understate the importance of her contribution. Likewise, Minttu Tuominen, a vastly-experienced Finnish international, quickly settled into her first season in Russia and her versatility enabled her to contribute on offense or defense as required.
And, of course, given the role that KRS plays in developing talent for China’s national program, the contribution of our home-grown and Chinese heritage players is important. The season brought a first ever WHL goal from Harbin-born blue liner Shuang Zhang while compatriot Xueting Qi also featured on defense. Among the forwards, Cui Huo potted three goals in 12 appearances while Liang Tang featured regularly. As for the Chinese heritage players, the likes of Jessica Wong, Kimberly Newell and Melanie Jue all played a big part as the preparations for Beijing 2022 continue.
It all adds up to a solid foundation for this year’s playoff campaign as the team remains in Krasnoyarsk to prepare for its semi-final match-up.
About the opposition
After four games and four wins over Biryusa this season, the Vanke Rays are unsurprisingly confident of progress. But it would be wrong to write off the opposition’s chances altogether. Head coach Alexander Vedernikov has been behind the bench since 2011 and his guidance helped the team in its battle to make the playoffs. In the penultimate week of the season, everything came down to a head-to-head battle against Dynamo Neva with fourth place at stake. Back-to-back wins, 2-0 and 4-3, secured that playoff berth and turned the final games of the regular season into a dress rehearsal rather than a desperate scramble for an extra point or two.
The 2-0 scoreline against Dynamo was backstopped by 16-year-old goalie Darya Gredzen. It was the youngster’s sixth shut-out of a hugely impressive season, a stat matched only by our own Kimberly Newell. Strong goaltending always gives a team a chance, especially when it is backed up by some scoring power. And, while the Dragons’ free-scoring style made us leading scorers in the WHL this season, Biryusa boasts the single most productive line in the championship. Ekaterina Dobrodeyeva, Sofia Lifatova and Valeria Pavlova combined for 40 goals this season, making it the league’s highest-scoring troika.
Even in those head-to-head meetings, the Rays’ record of four wins from four does not tell the full story. Biryusa managed to take a point from Stupino back in January, when we needed a Jessica Wong overtime goal to secure the win. Plus, in two of our meetings, the Siberian team opened the scoring before it was overpowered. Nobody would doubt that Brian Idalski’s team is a red-hot favorite to win this series, but it would be wrong to treat it as a foregone conclusion.
And Dobrodeyeva is convinced that Biryusa can improve on its recent losses in our league games in Krasnoyarsk last week.
“We need to go into each game with a huge desire to win,” she told the WHL’s official website. “The whole team has to be on board with that. The first task is to clamp down on defense and make sure they don’t get a good look at our net. And then we need to take the chances that will come our way.
“Vanke Rays has a good budget, they can sign up talented players. They have a strong team where everyone complements each other. But we are not afraid of them. We’re not just going to give up.”
History: Founded 1987 as Lokomotiv and began as a bandy team until women’s hockey was adopted by the Olympic movement in 1994. Adopted its current name, taken from a river near Krasnoyarsk, in 2012.
Honors: bronze medallist 11 times in Russia’s Women’s hockey championships
Key players: goalie Darya Gredzen, captain and leading scorer Valeria Pavlova
Playoff schedule (all games to be played in Krasnoyarsk)
March 3 – Biryusa vs KRS Vanke Rays (0900 Moscow time)
March 4 – KRS Vanke Rays vs Biryusa (0900 Moscow time)
March 7 – KRS Vanke Rays vs Biryusa (if required, time TBC)