LJUBLJANA – Korea has been an elevator team between Division I and II since 2001. Their Division I stints in 2002, 2004, 2008 all ended with the relegation back to Division II with close losses against their toughest opponents. One reason was the quality of their shots – or the lack thereof.
Two years ago the Koreans lost the deciding game against the Netherlands, 6-5 in overtime, despite dominating the game with 37-23 shots. This year, the team is the fan favourite with their courageous play and bad luck in front of the net. The Koreans seem to have everything to become a steady Division I nation apart from snipers.
Sure, there were some Korean goals. There were even three of them against gold-medal contender Slovenia, but those goals happened when Slovenia held a comfortable lead.
Ki Sung Kim and Dong Hwan Song have been the only players to score two goals so far.
When games are closer, the problems in shooting are more obvious. In the 2-1 defeat to Great Britain, Korea had a shot advantage, but scored only once with 29 shots.
In total, Korea has had 117 shots in four games, but have only a 6.84% success rate.
The Koreans also have the worst power play with only two goals in twenty power plays.
“Our team is physically not as strong as the other teams here. We can skate very fast and can keep up technically. We try to work very hard, to never give up and not to show any disappointment on the ice,” Korea head coach Hee Woo Kim said. “But physically our players are rather short and don’t have very hard shots. That is a reason why we don’t score that much. Shooting is something we have to work on in the future.”
Kim was named head coach last year and earned the promotion back to Division I. The 43-year-old is also the coach of High1 Chuncheon, one of two professional teams in Korea that compete in the Asia League with teams from Japan and China.
“We have only six men’s teams in Korea, two professional teams and four university teams,” Kim noted. “Our teams in the Asia League were good competitors and Anyang Halla won the regular season in the last two years and the playoffs this year. Many of our active players in Korea are juniors, so we expect Korean hockey to improve in the future.”
While there are problems on offence that cannot be changed at this tournament, the team also faces challenges on defence and goaltending. Both number-one goalkeeper Hyun Seung Eum, who injured his shoulder during the first game, and his 21-year-old replacement Sung Je Park have a save percentage of just 82%.
“We allow too many goals and this is Division I, not Division II, so what we have learned is to be harder working. It’s tough for us to lose our number-one goalkeeper as it’s the first tournament for Park and he’s the only player who doesn’t play professional hockey,” Kim said. “But I expect from the other players to work hard to help our goalkeeper in the game against Croatia.”
While Korea could keep up with many teams and holds a 8-19 goal record, Croatia is in last place with just two goals scored and conceding 28.
Just like two years ago, the crucial game for Korea to avoid relegation could become a game with a surplus of scoring chances. Whether the players manage to capitalize on the chances remains the biggest question to decide which team will stay in Division I and which goes to Division II.