Russian playoff preview: Can anyone take down Agidel?

With a recently-dynastic Tornado out of the picture, the road to the title goes through Bashkortostan

The Russian playoffs started with a best-of-three first round. Top-seed Agidel will battle fourth-seed SKIF, while second-seeded Dinamo welcomes Siberian foes Biryusa.

What are the keys for each of the four contenders still standing, and who will claim the trophy?

(1) Agidel Ufa

Regular Season: 26 wins, 2 OT/SO wins, 2 OT/SO losses, 6 losses

For the second year in a row, Agidel took home the regular season title and made their way into the playoffs quite comfortably,  finishing 17 points clear of second place. Their pure back-to-front balance is absolutely killer. Up front, you have the services of elite forward Olga Sosina (2nd in the league with 69 points), along with talented imports Alena Mills and Nicol Čupková, veteran Elina Mitrofanova, and 17 year old up-and-comer Polina Luchnikova. Those forces combined into an attack that put up a league-best 164 goals. The blueline features two strong rocks in Anna Shibanova and Maria Batalova, and posted the league’s best team goals-against-average. And even if you weather the offensive storm and slice through their elite defense, waiting for you in the net is Anna Prugova and her sparkling .930 SV%.

This team is talented, it is balanced, it is deep, and it is scary. And their top competition from a year ago, Tornado Moscow Oblast and their lethal top line, isn’t around to spoil the party.

(2) Dinamo St. Petersburg

Regular Season: 20 wins, 2 OT/SO wins, 1 OT/SO loss, 11 losses

Outside of Agidel, who looks like they’re in another league, the last 3 playoff teams are all fairly competitive in their own ways. For Dinamo, it’s arguably the league’s best goalie tandem, with both Valeria Merkusheva (.936 in 20 games) and Milena Tretyak (.923 in 16) posting elite numbers. They’re also the only playoff team who was led in scoring by a blueliner in the form of Aneta Teilarova (31 pts), the league’s top scorer from the blueline. The forward group doesn’t really have a go-to player who, in desperate times, you can just give them the puck and get out of the way.

With a wombo-combo of elite goalies, a balanced attack, and a dynamic blueliner who can carry the puck, Dinamo could be the team best poised to capitalize if Agidel slips up. But first, they have to go through...

(3) Biryusa Krasnoyarsk

Regular Season: 18 wins, 3 OT/SO wins, 2 OT/SO losses, 13 losses

This was a year of bounce backs for Biryusa. After a rusty year coming off maternity leave, Biryusa’s star forward Valeria Pavlova stepped up in a big way this year, pacing the attack with 50 points. Starting goalie Nadezhda Morozova saw her save percentage jump from a .909 last season to a .919 this year - much more in line with her numbers in the two seasons prior. And as a result, the 2016 bronze medalists look much more like the team that earned  that medal than the team that missed the playoffs last season. The team’s lack of a dynamic blueliner - Pavlina Goralkova’s 18 points is the fewest of the postseason teams by blueliners that were their team’s top-scoring defender - compared to other teams may prove to be an Achilles heel, especially coming up against a stalwart defensive team.

But maybe that’s just where Biryusa wants you. They were a team that saw a return to form this season, and could prove a sneaky test in this postseason.

(4) SKIF Nizhny Novgorod

Regular Season: 18 wins, 2 OT/SO wins, 3 OT/SO losses, 13 losses

The historic powerhouse that actually made the playoffs, SKIF had a very strange end to the season where they wound up snapping Sverdlovsk Oblast’s years-old losing streak, then wound up taking 2 of 3 from Tornado to snag the final playoff berth. The team is loaded with young talent, and veterans Anna Shchukina and Alexandra Vafina as well as ageless wonder Karoliina Rantamäki have provided a guiding hand. 18 year old Oxana Bratishcheva had a breakout year, posting 45 points this year after 24 a year ago. 20 year old Landysh Falyakhova also saw a serious jump in numbers, from 27 points to 40. And of course, goalie Valeria Tarakanova was her usual steady self, posting a .923 save percentage in goal.

The youth of this team led to an up and down season. But youthful energy can be a big boost, especially with vets like Shchukina, Vafina (both won with Agidel last year), and Rantamäki (who’s won 8 Finnish titles and one in Russia) who know how to win around them. Agidel can’t be complacent in Round 1, or they’ll have their hands full.