Russian women’s playoff preview: Will the duopoly end?

Entering the first-ever Russian women’s playoff, Agidel Ufa stands in a solid position to take the title. But the road will go through the two clubs that have won titles.

The first ever Russian women’s hockey playoff is finally here, kicking things off on April 10. Four teams will scrap it out for the chance to be crowned Champions of Russia.

The format will be best-of-three series, with the high seed hosting the second and third game.

Let’s take a look at the matchups.

(1) Agidel Ufa vs. (4) SKIF Nizhny Novgorod

SKIF are 12-time Champions of Russia, last winning in 2014, while Agidel has never won before.

In goal, Agidel have the edge. Anna Prugova has been terrific, leading the league in goals-against average and shutouts and ranking second in save percentage. SKIF goalie Valeriya Tarakanova ranks third in save percentage and fourth in goals against average; while that is pretty solid, it’s hard to compete against a 1.29 GAA. Agidel also have a decent backup in Mariya Sorokina. SKIF’s backup is the inexperienced Diana Farkhutdinova; while Farkhutdinova has some talent, she’s also only 17.

Agidel’s skaters are lethal in their balance — they had the second-best offense and second-best defense in the league. The ace, of course, is Olga Sosina (43 points), who is going to come out pissed off after losing the scoring title. Nicol Čupková (37 points) and Yekaterina Lebedeva (29 points) provide excellent secondary options, and on the blue line they have three defenders — Anna Shibanova, Mariya Pechnikova, and Alexandra Kapustina — with at least 15 points. Meanwhile, SKIF allowed the most goals of the four playoff teams, and only one defender has at least 15 points (Franciska Kiss-Simon). Their forwards are still a work in progress, with top scorer Landysh Falyakhova sitting on 26 points at the young age of 19.

SKIF has a lot of talent, no doubt, and if they play beyond their young years they could cause Agidel (who swept the regular season series 4-0) some fits. But Ufa has dominated the league all year, and will be expected to do so in the playoffs.

(2) Tornado Moscow Oblast vs. (3) Dynamo St. Petersburg

How does one steal a scoring title from Sosina? Score 22 points in five games. That, my friends, is Anna Shokhina at her best, as the Tornado forward basically did whatever she wanted against SKIF and Sverdlovsk Oblast to end the campaign. Tornado looks to win their fourth straight title and seventh in eight seasons.

But first, they have to face Dynamo St. Petersburg in a “Two Capitals” battle. This matchup is the quintessential “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” dichotomy. Tornado has the most goals for in the league, while Dynamo allows the fewest thanks to their star goaltender, Valeriya Merkusheva. On the rise at just 19, Merkusheva was second in the league with a 1.30 goals against average but finished tops with an absurd .952 save percentage. Going against this star-of-Russia’s-future is a star-of-Russia’s-present and recent past, 32-year-old Nadezhda Alexandrova, with a 2.27 GAA and .907 SV%. Will experience prevail in the net, or will young blood rise to the challenge?

Merkusheva will have her work cut out for her, because Tornado has scoring threats all over the lineup. But the top line of Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova, and Alevtina Shtaryova will be the scariest. The trio have combined for 140 points, and they get a lot of contributions from blue liners like Nina Pirogova or Mariya Batalova. Dynamo can’t match this firepower — top scorer Diana Kanayeva posted just 24 points this season — so they will need to control the tempo and slow the game down to have a chance.

So the question is — does defense truly win championships? Or will Tornado’s offense overwhelm Dynamo? The two teams did split the season series at two games apiece, so we’re in for a fun series.