ROC team rallies past Switzerland
by Lucas Aykroyd|21 AUG 2021
ROC captain Olga Sosina and her teammates outpaced Switzerland for a 3-1 opening victory at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images

Talk about classic Russian quick-strike hockey. The ROC team scored twice in 14 seconds on Switzerland in the second period, coming back from a 1-0 deficit and triumphing 3-1 in their Saturday opener in Calgary.

Valeria Pavlova, Viktoria Kulishova, and Maria Batalova had the goals for the ROC team, which outshot the Swiss 34-20. Both teams will face host Canada in their next games.

"It's always good to start with a win," said Batalova. "It was obvious that some of the girls were pretty nervous before the game. This game gave us confidence and we're taking that confidence and going onward."

Swiss coach Colin Muller's team stayed winless after falling 3-0 to the defending champion Americans in their first game. This defeat was further clouded by a leg injury to Swiss star Alina Muller (no relation to the coach), who left the game in the second period.

"It's always a tough loss, and in the instant, it's a bit of a shock," said Switzerland's Phoebe Staenz. "But we all need to get up and come back together on the ice. That's how it's got to go."

Muller, a 23-year-old former Patty Kazmaier Award finalist with Northeastern, scored Switzerland's first goal in the opening period. She led the 2018 Olympics with seven goals and was named Best Forward.

This Russian win could dictate who finishes fourth and fifth in Group A. Host Canada, Finland, and the U.S. – the 2019 Women’s Worlds medalists – are favoured to hold down the top three spots.

"It's a tough loss," said Swiss assistant captain Evelina Raselli. "We obviously wanted to win the game. We know we're probably going to play [the Russians] again, so it was important. It's a sign of where we are, and we probably weren't really ready from the beginning."

Under coach Yevgeni Bobariko, the goal is to bring a medal home to Russia for the first time since 2016’s bronze in Kamloops. It will be tough with a roster that’s half Women’s Worlds rookies, but beating Switzerland is a good first step.

In net, Valeria Merkusheva shone in her first 2021 start for the ROC team. The 21-year-old SKIF Nizhny Novgorod starter, who was named Best Goaltender at the 2017 U18 Women’s Worlds, posted a 6.81 GAA and 84.0 save percentage in three games at the 2019 Women’s Worlds.

"Valeria made big saves in key moments, and she kept us in the game," said Batalova.

After Switzerland’s Andrea Brandli faced a whopping 58 shots against the U.S., Saskia Maurer, a 20-year-old Thun product who was named Best Goaltender at the 2019 U18 Women’s Worlds, made her tournament debut.

Against the flow, the top Swiss attackers hooked up to open the scoring off the rush at 10:15. Staenz left a drop pass for captain Lara Stalder. She showed great patience before dishing the puck cross-ice to Alina Muller, who put it in the wide-open net. This was the first Women's Worlds point since 2017 for Stalder. She missed the 2019 tournament due to an injured shoulder.

ROC vs Switzerland - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship
ROC SUI 21 AUG 2021
Maurer preserved the early Swiss lead, stopping Russian captain Olga Sosina on a quick break from a neutral zone turnover and foiling Veronika Korzhakova on the rebound as well. Stalder squandered a golden opportunity with under two minutes before the buzzer, firing high and wide on a breakaway. Maurer was busy, as shots favoured the ROC team 11-5 in the first.

"The first 30 minutes of the game, we didn't play," Muller said. "We were watching. I don't know if we're mentally tired. We just weren't ready to compete at the level we need to. The Russians had fresher legs and they were ready to go. They jumped on us in the first 30 minutes."

In the middle frame, both goalies shone. From right in front, Maurer stoned Oxana Bratisheva. Merkusheva didn't bite on Staenz's dekes on another clearcut breakaway, and made a wonderful glove grab to stymie the onrushing Staenz's tip on a power play chance.

"On the tip, that was a really good save," Staenz said. "I did think I had her, but that's good on her."

During a two-player Swiss advantage, Muller fell awkwardly at the ROC team's blue line when her right ankle got twisted underneath a diving Sosina. She was helped off and did not return.

The ROC offence sprang to life at long last. They tied it up at 10:49 on the power play. Assistant captain Anna Shibanova fed Pavlova in the right faceoff circle and she zinged her first goal of the tournament off the far post.

Heads-up all the way, Kulishova busted in alone off the left side and scored five-hole on Maurer at 11:03. That prompted Muller to call his timeout to regroup.

Of her eventual winner, Kulishova said: "My teammates did their job. They found me at the blue line and I just went in and scored."

Bobariko commented on the two-goal outburst: ‚Äč"Those kind of goals can turn the tables over. The girls did a great job. One goal on the power play and then we switched to a fresher line and they did their job. We always tell the girls to play like that. Be aggressive, quick, fast and try to score two quick goals. If you can score one, you can score two. That's our motto."

In the third period, it was Switzerland's turn to struggle with discipline as the Russians had earlier. The Swiss took three straight minor penalties, which ate up valuable time, even though Bobariko's troops didn't add to their lead with the 5-on-4 advantages.

Batalova made it 3-1 at 17:16 when she took a drop pass from Fanuza Kadirova in the high slot and beat Maurer high to the glove side. Pulling Maurer for the extra attacker yielded nothing for the Swiss.

Looking ahead to facing the Canadians on Sunday, Bobariko said: "We need to believe in ourselves and stick to the plan. We need to put the maximum effort possible into that game."

The Russians are competing without highly skilled forwards like Anna Shokhina, who led the Russian Women’s Hockey League with 53 points this year but is still recovering from hand surgery, and Yelena Dergachyova, who recently became a mother. Yelena Smirnova is also out for the tournament after breaking a finger in exhibition play against the Americans.

The Swiss are hoping to break a Women’s Worlds medal drought dating back to 2012, when Switzerland won the bronze medal in Burlington, Vermont. The Swiss also made history with their 2014 Olympic bronze in Sochi.

Historically, the Russians have dominated this Women’s Worlds rivalry, although it’s gotten tighter. The overall record by Russian teams against Switzerland now sits at six wins, one tie, and two losses.

Switzerland also lost the last three encounters in 2013 (2-1) and 2019 (2-1 and 3-0 in the quarter-finals). The teams have split their Olympic clashes with the Russians winning 6-2 in both 2006 and 2018 (quarter-finals), while Switzerland won 2-1 in a shootout in 2010 to claim fifth place and 2-0 in the 2014 quarter-finals.
ROC vs Switzerland - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship