Agidel wins Russian women’s title
by Andy Potts|12 SEP 2021
The Agidel Ufa players celebrate in the dressing room after winning the final series of Russia’s Women’s Hockey League.
photo: Vladimir Bezzubov / KHL
Olga Sosina led from the front to give Agidel Ufa its third Russian Women’s Hockey League title in four seasons. The long-serving forward, who contributed 6 (3+3) points in six play-off appearances, showed nerves of steel to give her team a shootout win in Saturday’s decisive game at KRS Vanke Rays.

She stepped up for the 10th attempt in the series, knowing that if she failed to score, the Rays would retain the trophy they won in 2020 just before the pandemic brought a sudden end to competitive sport. Sosina scored, then repeated the trick in sudden death to send the title back to Ufa.
Team-mate Yelizaveta Rodnova paid tribute to one of her team’s undisputed leaders.

“Olga has so much experience,” Rodnova said after the game. “She’s played for the national team, she knows the opposition, she works on her own game. 

“It says a lot that she’s always ready to take responsibility in the big moments.”

Indeed, Sosina’s clutch contributions were what brought Agidel to this year’s final. In the decisive game of the semi-final series against SKIF Nizhni Novgorod, her team was down in the last minute. With 18 seconds left, the captain tied the scores. No prizes for guessing who got the winner in that shootout, and ultimately no surprise that Sosina finished as play-off MVP. 
This season’s finale was much delayed. It was originally scheduled for March, but an outbreak of COVID in the Agidel camp forced a postponement. Then, the rearrangement of the Women’s World Championship brought scheduling problems and the 2021 final became a prelude to the 2021/22 season.

That posed problems for both teams. The Vanke Rays underwent a huge turnover of players in the summer, with 16 departures and 15 new arrivals. Head coach Brian Idalski admitted before the series that his team had little chance to practise together before the opening game and hoped that the individual talents of his roster would be enough to compensate for a lack of teamwork. In Ufa, meanwhile, several players were called up for the Worlds, meaning the team’s preparations were also disrupted.

“I’m so grateful to the girls because they went through a lot,” said Agidel head coach Denis Afinogenov. “We had a difficult semi-final, every game was on a knife-edge and every time it went to a shootout. 

“Then quarantine, the World Championship was postponed, we started preparing for the new season and half the team went away to the Worlds. Our coaching staff did a great job getting everyone ready. That’s where this win came from.” 

In game one, played in Ufa on Tuesday, Agidel looked the better equipped of the two teams. A 5-2 home victory put Sosina & Co in pole position. But when the teams arrived in Mytishi, the adopted home of the Chinese-backed Vanke Rays, it was a different story. KRS won 4-1 and there was a further blow for Agidel when influential blue liner Anna Shibanova was injured in a collision with Michelle Karvinen.
The Agidel Ufa players pose for a team photo after winning the championship.
photo: Vladimir Bezzubov / KHL
On Saturday, many expected the Rays to finish the job. Momentum seemed to be with the home team and even though Agidel took the lead midway through the first period, there was an almost immediate reply. The opening Agidel goal was notable, however: the goal scorer was 15-year-old prospect Maria Mikaelyan, a teen ace who made her pro debut in this final series.

Early in the third, the predictions seemed to be coming true. Alena Mills, a title winner with Agidel in 2019, fired the Vanke Rays in front. With 15 minutes to play, the defending champion had one hand on the trophy again.

However, the previous day Afinogenov promised that his team would not return to Ufa without the cup. Rodnova spoke of the belief on the bench, even as the clock began to run away from their title dream. “We were focused, we knew we would win, regardless of the score,” she said. “We understood where we went wrong [in the previous game] and when we were behind again we kept playing our hockey. We didn’t go galloping into battle, we waited for our chance.”

Three minutes from the end, the chance arrived. Ilona Markova’s speculative shot crept past Kimberly Newell in the Dragons’ net to tie the scores. Overtime could not separate the teams, although Maria Sorokina had to make a stand-out save to deny Karvinen’s solo rush, and Sosina produced another game-saving score in the shootout before delivering the prize.

“I keep my word,” said Afinogenov, referencing the cult Russian gangster movie ‘Brother’. “Yesterday, I said we’d come back with the cup – and we did it.”

The head coach also paid tribute to the opposition after a hard-fought series that could genuinely have gone either way.

“We’re grateful to KRS Vanke Rays, we’ve learned a lot from them: pace, passing, shooting,” he added. “Now we want to keep working, keep improving our game. We like to play against strong opposition – and to win.”