POPRAD – At the 30-minute mark, Norway had a 3-0 lead. Thirty minutes later, it was 4-3 for Japan. Chiho Osawa scored one and collected an assist and Azuza Nakaoku made 25 saves as Japan beat Norway in the first game in Group C of the women’s Olympic qualification tournament.
Many fans watching the Olympic qualifying game in Japan – where it was broadcast live – might have given up at the halfway point and gone to bed. Those who stayed up got to see a fantastic comeback from the Japanese team, and a game-winning goal with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
“We never gave up, and we thought there was a chance to turn it around,” said Japan’s captain Chiho Osawa.
Coming into the tournament, Norway was ranked tenth in the world, Japan eleventh. With the stakes being a spot in the Olympics, it was no surprise that the game wasn’t a spectacle of freewheeling run and gun hockey. Both teams wanted to make sure no mistakes were made in their own or the neutral zone because the chances would come.
And they did, and as so many times in so many hockey games around the world, the chances came on power play.
It was Norway, who got their first power-play opportunity first just a little over two minutes into the game when Rui Ukita was assessed a hooking penalty. Norway couldn’t convert on their power play, but they did take control of the game. Tomoe Yamane’s penalty also helped with that, even if the Japanese penalty kill worked well and kept the Norwegian shooters on the outside.
Norway was the stronger team in the first period. The players on the Japanese team are much shorter than their opponent’s, and in the first period they had trouble getting quality scoring chances, and Christine Smestad in Norway’s goal was good. The shortest player on the Norwegian team is Marlene Günther – who led Norway in scoring in the under-18 Division I tournament in January and had taken a spot in the first defensive pairing in the women’s national team – at 162 centimeters. Only nine players on the Japanese team are taller than her.
But it took three power-play opportunities for Norway to get the goal they wanted. Madelen Hansen won the draw in Japan’s zone, and Birgitte Lensbryggen fired a slapshot that beat Azusa Nakaoku in Japan’s goal with 1:44 remaining in the first period.
Japan got to start the second period with a player advantage but couldn’t score. Instead, when Line Bialik got out of the box, she intercepted a pass on the blueline, then flipped the puck to the neutral zone and beat a Japanese defender in the puck race, before lifting it past Nakaoku with a nifty backhander at 2:20.
“We capitalized on our chances but we had problems getting pucks to the net, and we took way too many penalties and it was tough for us to get into their zone,” said Norway’s captain Line Bialik, who had a two-point night.
In the second period, it was Norway who got into penalty trouble, and just a few minutes after Bialik’s 2-0 goal, Hege Ask took a holding minor. Just 25 seconds after she stepped back onto the ice. Ingvild Farstad got the puck on the blueline, off a no-look pass from Bialik, fired a wristshot to Nakaoku’s stickside, and sent the water bottle flying to give Norway a three-goal lead in their first game of the tournament.
But Japan didn’t give up, and when Norway’s Helene Martinsen was sent to the penalty box for holding – Norway had trouble keeping up with the quick Japanese players – Japan’s power play finally worked. Miho Shishiuchi played the puck down low to team captain Chiho Osawa, who found Kanae Aoki wide open on the far side.
With 10:43 remaining in the third period, Japan made it a one-goal game. Smestad, who had been solid in the game, made a crucial mistake and Osawa’s soft shot from the blue line meant to be a dump into the zone went through her five-hole instead.
“I didn’t think it was going to go in. But when it did, I knew we could win the game,” said Osawa.
“It was tough, but you can’t just give up. Goals like that happen in hockey all the time. We should be able to focus on our own game, but we didn’t do that today,” said Bialik.
And 1:42 later, it was a tie-game. Hanae Kubo skated around the entire Norwegian defence, and found Ami Nakamura all alone in the slot. She fired a wrist shot and beat Smestad high on the glove side.
And then, with 2:47 remaining in the game, Tomoko Sagamaki’s wrist shot found its way to the net through some traffic, and then through Smestad and into the net, to give Japan the lead in the game for the first time. It was also Japan’s second powerplay goal in the game.