By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
For many women’s teams, the pandemic put hockey on pause for a year. But, with the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Canada coming up in spring, February 2021 saw several countries getting back on the ice and making plans for their rosters for April. There was action in Switzerland, Russia, Denmark and Austria over the past week. Some other countries like Finland and Sweden had two cancel their camps due to COVID-19 while the Czechs had a training camp with no games.
Before last week’s International Break, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey also held camps in January and October respectively to get potential candidates for the Women’s Worlds roster together.
‘It’s really special to be back’
Switzerland assembled for its first team camp in a year and welcomed Germany across the border to Romanshorn for three exhibition games at Lake Constance. Each encounter was a close-fought affair, beginning with a goalless tie that was decided in a shootout in game one. With goalies Saskia Maurer and Jennifer Harss on top throughout the action, it took 32 penalty shots before Emily Nix beat Maurer to give Germany the verdict.
Nix also played a big role in game two, assisting on Kerstin Spielberger’s first-period opener before scoring the game winner early in the second. The 23-year-old, who plays for Eisbaren Berlin in the Frauen Bundesliga, converted a 5-on-3 power play to make it 2-0. Switzerland hit back through Sinja Leemann but could not complete the recovery. For the Swiss it was the second defeat despite outshooting Germany in both games.
Game three was the highest scoring of the week, and this time Switzerland claimed a 4-3 verdict. The teams traded goals inside the first five minute before Leemann’s second tally in two games gave the Swiss the lead for the first time in the exhibition series. Twice, the Germans tied it up – the Nix-Spielberger combination delivering again – but Switzerland won it on Nicole Bullo’s 47th-minute marker.
Both teams were delighted to be able to return to the ice after a long break. When the pandemic struck last March, wiping out World Championships at all levels and categories, few imagined that the February 2020 camps and tournaments would prove to be the last time these teams could get together for 12 months. Germany’s plans were disrupted further by the unavailability of head coach Christian Kunast, but Franziska Busch stepped up from her role in charge of the U18s to deputize on the Swiss side of Lake Constance.
“It was great fun and an honour for me,” she said. “We had some problems getting back to our game after a year, but it was also clear that we continued to work well tactically during that year. We have a stable system that helped us.”
Kunast, watching from afar, was also encouraged by what he saw. “We learned a lot,” he added. “Our younger players are stepping up and the pool of potential World Championship players is growing.”
The Swiss, too, were excited to be back. “We’ve never gone so long without a training camp before,” said goalie Saskia Maurer. “It’s really special to be back with the team after a year apart.”
Happy reunions aside, there was also work to do at the week-long camp. “The focus is a little bit on everything,” said blue-liner Sarah Forster. “After a year, we need to go back to basics. We have a young team, so we have to go step-by-step.”
Head coach Colin Muller was pleased with the progress his team made during the week.
“It’s always difficult against the Germans and this week it was a one-goal game every time,” he said. “We were unlucky to lose the first in a shootout and the second game was also very tight. I’m happy that we were able to react to those losses and win the last game.
“We are always working on our team for the Worlds. This was a test for all of us, everyone had to show what she could do.”
Russia against the world
Russia, short of match practice this season due to COVID restrictions, found an unusual way of getting game time. The Red Machine arranged two warm-up encounters with KRS Vanke Rays, the defending Russian WHL champion. The Chinese franchise, temporarily playing out of the Moscow Region town of Stupino, boasts players from Canada, the USA, Finland, the Czech Republic, Russia and China, making this something of a Russia-against-the-World clash.
Yevgeni Bobariko, Russia’s head coach, had some inside knowledge of the opposition: his alternate captain, Alexandra Vafina, plays her hockey for KRS this season and faced off against her clubmates in these two games. In a pair of evenly-matched encounters, her insight might have tipped the balance as Russia won the first game 1-0, then edged a shootout verdict after a 3-3 tie.
The first game was dominated by goalies. For Russia, Valeria Merkusheva recorded an impressive shutout. That’s the third time this season she’s denied KRS, after twice blanking the league leader in WHL action. At the other end, though, Finnish star Noora Raty was stretchered off in the second period after sustaining a lower-body injury. Last week she announced on her Instagram that the problem was not as bad as initially feared and would not require surgery. However, it’s unclear whether she will recover in time for a comeback already this season. Polina Bolgareva, who plays under Bobariko for Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg, potted the only goal.
Next day, the teams met again in a higher-scoring clash. Russia opened a 2-0 lead but let it slip and needed a tying goal from Nina Pirogova 33 seconds from the end to save the game. Landysh Falyakova potted the shootout winner.
Olga Sosina, captain of the Russian team, enjoyed the weekend work-out – especially in the absence of the usual Euro Tour schedule: “The Vanke Rays are an excellent opponent,” she said. “They have a skilled team, which plays attacking hockey and went at us from the get-go, finding the places where we weren’t ready and could make mistakes. But in the second game we spent a lot of time in their zone and created chances. We couldn’t take enough of them and got hit with three counterattacks. So we have things to work on.”
For the Vanke Rays, it was a good chance for players to promote their own international prospects. Minntu Tuominen suggested it might also help the Finnish women’s national team get a look at how Russia is shaping up for April’s Worlds in Nova Scotia, while Megan Bozek and Alex Carpenter are both eying a return to the American roster for the big tournament. Carpenter enjoyed her spot of international action during a busy league schedule. “We’ve had a couple of weeks without any games, so these were good tests before the concluding games of the season,” she said. “We had a chance to work on our systems against strong opposition, get a look at our special teams and get ready for a difficult stretch in the season. We have 10 WHL games in a short space of time, then the playoffs.
“The results [against Russia] aren’t so important, but the games were very even.”
— Хоккей России (@russiahockey) February 7, 2021
Newly-promoted nations meet
Denmark and Hungary, promoted to the top division of the Women’s World Championship together back in 2019 when they finished atop of the Division I Group A in Budapest, faced off as part of their preparations for the 2021 event in Canada. The teams met in Copenhagen at Orestad Skojtehall, the venue built next to Royal Arena before the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship when it served as practice facilty, and shared one victory apiece from their two encounters.
In game one, Hungary took the honours in a shootout after a 2-2 tie in regulation. The Magyars led twice thanks to goals from Alexandra Huszak, but Denmark twice tied it up with goals from Silke Lave Glud and a last-gasp equalizer from Josefine Jakobsen with 20 seconds left to play. Fanny Gasparics secured the win for Hungary in the shootout.
Day 2 saw the teams meet again and this time the Danes won 2-1. Regina Metzler, 15, made her international debut and celebrated with the first goal as Hungary once again opened the scoring. This time, though, the host hit back through Michelle Weis Hansen 49 seconds later before Jakobsen’s point shot deflected by Glud brought a second, decisive goal.
Austrians beat Kazakhstan
Outside of the top tier nations, Austria played two exhibition games against Kazakhstan. Neither of these teams will go to a World Championship this year following the cancellation of the lower divisions, but Austria could celebrate back-to-back wins in Vienna ahead of both teams’ Olympic Qualification campaign next autumn.
The first game was tight, with Nadja Granitz getting the only goal in the second period. Goalies Selma Luggin and Jessica Ekrt shared the workload, stopping 33 Kazakh shots between them. In game two, Kendra Broad, enjoying her second season playing in Kazakhstan, got her first goal for her adopted nation midway through the first period. However, the Canadian-born centre was destined to finish on the losing side again. Austria recovered to tie it up in the second through Monika Vlcek before third-period tallies from Emma Hofbauer and Lena Daubock gave the home team a 3-1 verdict.