The opening stages of the season are always a time where you can make a statement about what kind of team you are.
For Agidel Ufa, the message was sent loud and clear to the rest of Russian women’s hockey: we’re still on top.
Their season-opening three-game series was a rematch of last year’s final between first-time-champs Agidel and Tornado Dmitrov, a team that has been one of the most successful in the history of Russian women’s hockey.
After the series, Agidel sits atop the Russian league with three wins, sweeping Tornado back to the Moscow suburbs with a trio of losses: 3-2, 4-1, and 6-4.
Agidel trailed for only 4:11 during the entire set, with Tornado opening the scoring in Sunday’s first game and Wednesday’s third game. They responded quickly both times, erasing Alvetina Shtaryova’s opener 4:05 later on Sunday through Polina Luchnikova — more on her later — and equalizing on Wednesday just six seconds after Anna Savonina had put Tornado in front through captain Olga Sosina.
And it’s just as interesting to dig into who contributed to this sweep. Sosina was obviously her amazing self, with three goals and three assists across the three games, jumping out to the league scoring lead, a place she’s been quite familiar with in the last couple of years. Sidekick Nicol Čupková also did what she usually does, scoring twice on Wednesday and leaving the weekend with four points. Veteran goalie Anna Prugova was mostly solid on the set, stopping 87 of 94 for a .926 save percentage. Those are things we expected to see.
What we didn’t expect is newcomer Maria Batalova fitting in seamlessly with Agidel with a three-point week from the blue line. She looked more like someone who’d been with the team for years (like the since-departed Fanni Gasparics) than someone who just signed there this summer. We didn’t expect 16-year-old Luchnikova to explode onto the scene, scoring four goals, including a game winner, showing why she’s one of the top prospects in the Russian program. We didn’t expect Agidel’s blue line to keep Anna Shokhina as quiet as you can really keep her, limiting last year’s scoring champion (who finished 11 points ahead of second place) to just two points, both assists, and only one of which was primary.
Was it a perfect set of games from Agidel? Of course not, there really is no such thing, there will always be stuff to work on whether you’re beating Tornado in tight games on the road or steamrolling SK Sverdlovsk Oblast in Yekaterinburg. The special teams were okay, but nothing spectacular — which is nothing new as Agidel plays best at five on five. They also, as stated earlier, needed a bit of an early kick in the pants, conceding the first goal twice in three games, though they responded within five minutes both times.
With that said, it’s clear that the road to the Russian title will be going through Bashkortostan, and as they move on to another home set against Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, the confidence will be flowing like the water in the river that the team was named for.