With a tough 2-1 win over Japan, host Russia set up a Thursday showdown with Sweden for first place in Group B. Alexandra Vafina scored the third-period winner.
The Russians, who won their second World Women's Championship bronze medal in Ottawa last year, are making it hard for themselves so far in Sochi.
"It was a stressful game," said Vafina. "We didn't expect it to be so close, but they are a good rival. They played really well. We scared our fans a little bit, and we scared ourselves."
With 8:24 remaining, Vafina stripped defenceman Shiori Koike at the blueline for a shorthanded breakaway and zoomed in to roof one past goalie Nana Fujimoto on the stick side.
"I didn't really think," said Vafina. "As soon as I got the puck, I felt I would score. I just went straight to the net and shot. I was thinking we have to score, we have to win the game."
The plucky Japanese remain winless all-time in Olympic women's hockey. Their two one-goal losses to open this tournament are their best results ever.
Scoring a goal broke a long drought for the Japanese. The last time Japan was credited with a goal in Olympic women’s hockey was in a 6-1 loss to China on February 11, 1998 in Nagano.
The Japanese women bow to the crowd after games, but they're hardly bowing easily to their rivals.
The standings now make the picture very simple. In the quarter-finals, the winner of the Sweden-Russia game will face the loser of the Switzerland-Finland game and the loser of the Sweden-Russia game will take on the winner of the Switzerland-Finland game.
Regardless of what happens in Thursday’s round-robin finale between Japan and Germany, they will both take part in the Final Classification Playoff for positions 5 through 8.
Tatyana Burina also scored for Russia. Ayaka Toko replied for Japan.
Making her tournament debut, goalie Anna Prugova outdueled her Japanese counterpart Nana Fujimoto, as Russia outshot Japan 38-22.
For the second straight game, the Russians were limited to one goal or fewer until midway through the third period. That has to cause some concern for GM Alexei Yashin’s squad.
Encouraging chants of “Rossiya!” and “Shaibu!” rocked the Russian flag-laden Shayba Arena.
At 11:39, Burina capitalized on a turnover at the Japanese blueline, came in on the right side, and fluttered a soft wrist shot through two defenders that beat a kneeling Fujimoto through the five-hole. The Vortex Sapporo netminder tipped her head back in disgust as the crowd of 4,897 exploded.
The Russians came within a hair’s breadth of going up by two on a late first-period power play, but Burina was unable to convert a gorgeous backhand feed across the crease from Galina Skiba, putting it off the inside of Fujimoto’s left post.
Moments later, Prugova foiled Chiho Osawa on a shorthanded breakaway.
With under two minutes left in the first, the Japanese had a stroke of misfortune when Rui Ukita backhanded a puck from along the goal line. The Japanese thought it went past Prugova, but she fell backward to conceal the disc, and the officials did not review the play or award a goal.
In the second period, the Russians began buzzing around Japan’s net, and coach Yuki Iizuka’s crew was left scrambling around. Shots on goal favoured Russia 21-4.
With about two and a half minutes left in the middle frame, Ekaterina Pashkevich had a good chance on a 2-on-1 rush but fired wide.
Russia got a power play to close out the period when Mika Hori hauled down Iya Gavrilova, who was busting through the defence and tried to push the puck home as she fell. Just before the siren, Fujimoto stoned Gavrilova again on a close-range backhand deke.
Just 33 seconds into the third period, Ayaka Toko stunned the home crowd when she fluttered a high wrist shot from the left point that tipped off Russian assistant captain Yekatarina Smolentseva and eluded Prugova. The Japanese players lived up to the "Smile Japan" banners that their supporters had hung up in the arena.
An element of panic entered Russia's game, as they took three consecutive minors in the next nine minutes.
"When there is a penalty, the opposing team gets an advantage and of course they start attacking all the time. Some nervousness appears – it’s normal," said Burina.
With Inna Dyubanok off for interference, the teams traded golden chances. When defenceman Kanae Aoki fell over at the blueline, Pashkevich got a breakaway, but couldn't dipsy-doodle past Fujimoto. The Japanese hustled back the other way and nearly got it past Prugova.
"You won't believe it, but a long time ago, I scored from a chance like that against Japan when we were three against five," Pashkevich recalled.
When Olga Sosina went off for hooking, Osawa flubbed her backhand attempt in front of a wide-open net.
After Vafina restored Russia's lead, the Japanese came on with several desperate flurries but couldn't find the equalizer, even after pulling their goalie in the final minute.
The crowd was so loud that several players kept on playing after the siren went off.
"When you hear that noise and see the wave going round, how can you not want to win it for those fans?" said Pashkevich gratefully.