POPRAD – Japan beat Denmark 5-0 and won Group C in the women’s Olympic qualification, earning a spot in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Hanae Kubo scored two and added two assists, Yuka Hirano scored one and added three assists, and Azusa Nakaoku made 20 saves en route to a shutout.
"We didn't know much about the other teams coming into the tournament, but all we ever asked from the team was to play their best," said Japan head coach Yuji Iizuka.
It will be the second Olympics for the Japanese women after Nagano 1998. They will be seeded in the lower tier, Group B, with Sweden, Russia and Germany, the other qualifier.
"We tried to play our best game today. We promised each we'd go for the win, and we did it," said Japan captain Chiho Osawa.
The Japanese have held camps every month since May in an effort to qualify for the Olympics. The team’s games in Poprad have been broadcast live in Japan, and in addition to that, there are a dozen Japanse reporters covering the team in Slovakia.
It was not all for nought. Denmark, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament ran out of magic after eight consecutive wins in three stages of the Olympic Qualification.
"This game showed that we still have ways to go. However, we were a little unlucky and couldn't capitalize on our chances, which they did. Had we scored a couple of goals early in the game, it would have been a different story," said Denmark's coach Denis Larsen.
"We lost to a better team," he added.
The nature of the game was obvious from the first puck drop. Japan would control the puck and the game, and Denmark would try to defend as well as possible, then use their scoring chances to the max. So when Japan got a power-play opportunity at 7:22, it was Denmark that had the first dangerous scoring chance when Henriette Østergaard stickhandled her way through Japan’s defence, but couldn’t beat Azusa Nakaoku in Japan’s goal.
Later on the same power play Miho Shishiuchi deflected Kanae Aoki’s shot past Kamilla Lund Nielsen, giving Japan the all-important lead in the game.
Japan dominated the game, but Denmark had their chances, especially on their power play and especially with the their forwards Josephine Jakobsen, Josephine Asperup, and Henriette Østergaard on the ice, all taller than the tallest Japanesen defenceman. The line won puck battles in the corners, but couldn’t find a way to score a goal.
And with just 1:24 remaining in the first period, Hanae Kubo beat Nielsen with a wrist shot from up close, and took the Danish dream that much farther away.
Denmark began the third period on power play, and even got another opportunity just 12 seconds after Japan was playing at full strength. They peppered Nakaoku with shots, but couldn’t get any of them in. And then at 7:22 into the period, Kubo sent a backhand pass across the neutral zone.
Yuka Hirano was skating down the left wing, she grabbed the loose puck and found herself alone with Nielsen. She made a deke and buried the puck into the net for 3-0.
Denmark’s road to Sochi turned into an uphill climb, considering the team had scored just four goals in their first two games of the tournament.
In the last shift of the period, Hirano fired a slapshot from the blueline. It hit Tomoko Sakagami in the arm, but the puck bounced to Kubo who had an easy job to lift it into the net with just four seconds remaining in the second period.
Denmark had a few scoring chances in the third, including a breakaway, but Nakaoku turned away everything. Instead, with 9:07 remaining in the game, Shiori Koike fired a onetimer from the right faceoff dot, and beat Nielsen on the stick side, to make it 5-0 for Japan. Kubo’s assist was her fourth point of the game.
"The team played better than expected, and I'm very happy," said Iizuka.
After being down 3-0 in their first game against Norway, and rallying back to win it 4-3, and then losing to Slovakia in a penalty shootout, with the win over Denmark, Japan clinched first place in Group C, and will play in the Sochi Olympics.
Not a bad way for team captain Chiho Osawa to celebrate her 21st birthday.
"The best," she said, and laughed.
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