Russian women’s hockey has had a roller-coaster last few months. From falling to Germany at least year’s World Championships, to the U18s upsetting Canada last month, to several players being cleared of doping charges, it’s sure been an interesting time to be a follower of Russia and its growth in women’s hockey.
This Olympics, though the team will be known as Olympic Athletes from Russia and won’t have the imagery or anthem of their motherland, can still be a chance to turbocharge that growth.
Let’s meet the team that coach Alexei Chistyakov has called in for PyeongChang.
The goaltending battle will be an interesting one to figure out. Valeriya Tarakanova, at just 19 years of age, will likely be the third goalie due to her inexperience, so the battle will be between the two Nadezhdas: Morozova and Alexandrova. While coach Chistyakov is more familiar with Alexandrova (as both come from Tornado Moscow Oblast), Morozova has posted better numbers in the Russian women’s league over the last few years, and the Biryusa netminder was the one that started the Nations Cup final in Germany last month. It really depends on if Chistyakova wants Alexandrova’s veteran savvy (at 32 this is probably her last Olympics) or wants to embrace a “future is now” mentality (Morozova is 21).
The interesting omission is Anna Prugova of Agidel Ufa. Prugova, a 24-year-old from Khabarovsk, posted better numbers than both Alexandrova and Morozova last season, is posting better numbers than both this season, and has already participated in two Olympics on top of backstopping the current Russian women’s league leaders.
Two defenders return from the team that finished sixth in Sochi in the form of Angelina Goncharenko and Svetlana Tkachyova, the latter of whom has recently returned after two years of maternity leave. There is one noteworthy omission due to the recent doping scandal: Anna Shchukina of Agidel, even though her appeal of doping charges was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The addition of Tkachyova will prove important from an experience standpoint, as the group is very young. After the 33-year-old Tkachyova, who will primarily play a shutdown role, the oldest defender on the team is Goncharenko, at 23. Four of the blue line corps — Yekaterina Lobova, Anastasiya Chistyakova, Liana Ganeyeva, and Mariya Batalova — made their World Championship debut last year.
But these kids are talented — Nina Pirogova had 39 points in 34 games for Tornado last year, and Ganeyeva has been a terrific player for a lousy Arktik-Universitet squad the last few years. This very defense corps did win the Nations Cup last month, so they have shown they can grab W’s in warmups. Let’s see if they can do the same in the Olympics.
The top two lines for this team should be stapled together: the line of Valeriya Pavlova, Olga Sosina, and Lyudmila Belyakova on the top unit, followed by the lethal Tornado line of Anna Shokhina, Yekaterina Dergachyova, and Alevtina Shtaryova.
Sosina, Shokhina, and Dergachyova make up three of the four returners from the Sochi squad, with the fourth being Yekaterina Smolina, who had a shaky 2016-17 but seems to be Chistyakov’s choice for veteran leader, as she and Sosina are the only forwards above the age of 25.
Pavlova missed last season on maternity leave, but has come back very strong; the 22-year-old Biryusa Krasnoyarsk star has 17 points so far in the league this season. Sosina has, well, been doing Sosina things: scoring a lot of points (her 29 points are tops in the Russian league once again). She’s the only representative from current league leaders Agidel Ufa, although that is partially due to IOC doping bans on Shchukina and forward Inna Dyubanok, as well as the debatable call to keep Alexandra Vafina at home. Also debatable: the decision to leave Calgary Inferno forward Iya Gavrilova at home. Gavrilova has 16 points in 19 games in the CWHL so far this season; only time will tell if Chistyakov made the right call.
Amongst the forward groups are three teenagers. Fanuza Kadirova is no stranger to the senior international level, with three World Championships under her belt. However, Viktoria Kulishova and Alyona Starovoitova are making their competitive senior debuts in PyeongChang, thanks to a strong start to the domestic season. Both represented the Zhenskaya Sbornaya at last year’s World U18s.
February 11, Olympic Athletes of Russia v. Canada @ 7:10 am ET
February 13, Olympic Athletes of Russia v. United States @ 7:10 am ET
February 15, Olympic Athletes of Russia v. Finland @ 2:40 am ET
Bob Dylan described this incarnation of the Russian national team best when he sang that “the times, they are a-changin’.” Staples of previous Team Russias, such as Tatyana Burina, Yekaterina Smolentseva, Alyona Khomich, and Yekaterina Pashkevich, are retired. Rising up is a new generation of Russian women’s hockey heroes.
In my opinion, the best case is that they edge out Finland, Sweden, and the Swiss for bronze, and show that they are a team that will be feared in a couple years. Worst case is another Olympics where they fail to make the semis.
They won’t wear the double-headed eagle. The notes of the State Anthem of the Russian Federation won’t be blasting over the speakers in Korea. But this is still Russia.
In the words of Olga Sosina: “Winning awards isn’t cooking borscht.” And it’s not.
But the Russian squad may be able to cook up some surprises in PyeongChang.