Japan back at the top

Women’s team seals promotion against host Austria


The Japanese players bow to each other after scoring a goal in the deciding game for first place against Austria. Photo: NZ Photo

GRAZ, Austria - Rolling past opponents in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A, exiting times are looming around the corner for Japan with top division hockey and the Winter Olympics to look forward to.

At the first attempt, Japan's women's national team propelled themselves back into life at the top. In February they won the Olympic Qualification tournament on home ice against Germany to earn their tickets to PyeongChang 2018. And on Thursday they secured Division I Group A gold and promotion to the next Women’s Worlds.

Needing only four games to wrap up top spot at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A, their gold medals were sealed following a 4-1 win against hosts Austria, which was also undefeated after the first three games.

“Our strong team defence was the key for us,” said head coach Takeshi Yamanaka following their victory where they only conceded four goals in four games en route to clinching promotion. Japan will now aim to raise their game for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang 2018 and the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Finland.

Asia's highest representative in women's hockey had been in cruise control from start to finish at the Division I Group A in Graz. Emphatically winning the shots 117 against 36 in their three opening games had first seen them edge Hungary 1-0, then blanking Denmark 3-0 in their second game before seeing off a plucky Norway 5-3. When game four came around, Japan had it all in their own hands to wrap up proceedings, as they went head to head with hosts Austria for top spot.

In front of home crowd of 1,138 inside the refurbished Merkur Arena in Graz, it was the Austrians who came out the strongest against the tournament top seeds. A high-tempo start of the game by the hosts intensified further following a tripping minor on Japan's Sena Suzuki at 4:35.

But failing to capitalize would cost Austria dearly. Japan sailed away on a breakaway with Hanae Kubo's effort deflecting off Austria's Alessandra Lopez and past Theresa Hornich in Austria's net for Japan's opener after 11:35.

Austria continued to threaten as the first frame wore on. Winning the shots 9-8, Theresa Schafzahl and Denise Altmann went close after fine work from Anna Meixner behind Japan's cage.

But when the goal arrived, Japan and the lethal Kubo were at it again. On a power play, a finely worked move by Rui Ukita and Shiori Koike found Kubo in front of the net who found a chink in Hornich's armour. Japan's lead had doubled at 16:22 and finished the frame a manner which pleased Japan's head coach.

“It was difficult at first with the speed and pressure from Austria, but we managed to get back quickly into the game,” said Yamanaka.

Japan came out roaring as the puck was dropped for the middle frame. They got their reward for their endeavour and crisp skating at 3:45 of the second period when Haruna Yoneyama picked out Moeko Fujimoto from the right who from close range backhanded home Japan's third high past a helpless Hornich in Austria's net. Calling for a time-out saw Austria's head coach Pekka Hamalainen try to get the verve back into his troops, but little did it help as Japan steamed on looking for more goals. A one-sided middle frame saw Japan win the shots 13-2 and at 27:04, a Suzuki drive from the blueline stretched Japan's lead to four unanswered goals.

In what had become an uphill struggle for the hosts, Hamalainen pulled Hornich from the net to replaced her with Jessica Ekrt. The home crowd finally got a glimmer of hope with 4:28 left of the second period as Eva Maria Beiter Schwarzler hit home Austria's first for the evening.

But having perfected the tactic to hold on to a lead, Japan's victory was never in doubt. While Austria went into the final frame seeking for another goal, Japan themselves squandered a number of fine scoring chances as captain Chiho Osawa missed a one-on-one with Ekrt and only seconds later Ukita hit the crossbar. By then most of the onlookers inside the Merkur Arena had given up on any hopes for a fightback from their home favourites. With 2:59 left of the game the Mission Impossible soundtrack was echoing out from the arena speakers ahead of a face-off as Japan was to hold on to their lead with admirable discipline before muted celebrations ensued as promotion was guaranteed.

“I am disappointed, we did play quite well, but it is a good Japanese team who defended well and all their lines are good skaters and play well for the team. We had chances to score, especially in the first period and if we could had scored there it might have been a different game,” said Austria head coach Hamalainen, who with nine points currently sits in second place and will take on Denmark in their final match.

Japan on the other hand, will have plenty of hard graft ahead of them with their third appearance at the Winter Olympics coming around next year for their experienced crop of roster with an average age of 25.

“Because we are not that tall, we need to focus even more on our speed, but also try and built up strength for us to be able to compete at the highest level,” said head coach Yamanaka.

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