KUSHIRO, Japan – The Nippon Paper Cranes Kushiro won the Asia League in an all-Japanese final against regular-season winner Oji Eagles Tomakomai to remain the record title holder in league with four championships.
The win came as a surprise considering the regular-season standings. The Oji Eagles finished first with 110 points losing only three out of 42 games. In comparison, the Cranes just had 75 points. Korean teams Daemyung Sangmu Seoul (78) and High1 Chuncheon (67) were the other teams that reached the semi-finals of the eight-team professional league established in 2003 and consisting of four Japanese, three Korean and one Chinese team.
The Cranes were in great shape already in the semi-finals where they travelled to Seoul and won all three games in Korea. The two remaining games of the best-of-five series on home ice on the northern island of Hokkaido were not needed anymore. The Oji Eagles also marched through the semi-finals with three straight wins.
The final series began with three games in Tomakomai where the Oji Eagles started with a clear win on home ice, 9-1. Incredibly, all nine goals came from different scorers.
One day later things changed. The Eagles’ firepower was still there with 36 shots, but goaltender Hisashi Ishikawa did his job in the Cranes net. This time he saved all but one shot late in the third period while an early goal from his teammate Daisuke Obara set the tone for a 4-1 win by the visiting team.
The Oji Eagles also outshot their opponent in the third home game but lost again. Ishikawa had a shutout with 39 saves while Kenta Takagi scored the only goal 35 seconds into overtime.
After a three-day break the cross-island rivalry for Asian supremacy continued 300 kilometres away in Kushiro where the Nippon Paper Cranes had the chance to win the championship on home ice in front of a capacity crowd of 3,120 fans. They had reason to celebrate early, after the first period their heroes led 3-0 with a pair of goals from Takagi and another marker from Hyung-Yun Shin.
However, the Oji Eagles reacted and capitalized on their power-play opportunity early in the middle frame. A goal from Sho Sato and another one 27 seconds later from Kohei Mitamura brought the regular-season winner back to a one-goal difference. But at 11:51 of the period Takagi completed his hat trick and the Nippon Paper Cranes ended up winning the game 4-2 and the series 3-1.
It was fine Japanese goal production that led the team to the title that prior to the final had mostly relied on its import players Adam Miller and Mike Radja. The Americans, who joined after a career in Europe and North American minor leagues, were the top point scorers of the league in the regular season with 73 and 72 points respectively.
In the final, however, it was 20-year-old forward Takagi who became the much celebrated hero. Of all players it was him, who grew up in the rival’s city Tomakomai, who netted the deciding goals. Takagi played his first World Championship event with the Japanese men’s national team last year in Budapest and after a great season with his club team he may crown his season with by participating in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Goyang, Korea.