Throughout this week’s Division IA tournament, the Germans and the Japanese had been a class apart from the rest. The two nations went into Thursday’s showdown with four wins apiece and had allowed just one goal each. The only difference between them was that Germany had needed overtime to defeat third-placed Hungary, while Japan had won all its games in regulation. This was truly destined to be a clash of the titans to determine which team would claim gold and win promotion.
For German head coach Franziska Busch, a veteran of Olympic and World Championship play for her country, it was also a chance to set a record straight.
“We were the last German team that wasn’t playing in the top division,” Busch said after the game. “We wanted to put that right and take the next step up. That was the goal for this tournament. We knew that Japan would be a very strong team and we played almost a perfect game at the perfect time.
“I’m thankful to the team for that, and I respect them a lot for that performance.”
Given the quality of defence on display from both teams in this tournament, it was no surprise that fans in Fussen saw a low-scoring affair. In the first period, chances were at a premium as both teams diligently went about their defensive duties. The game opened up a little in the second, but it wasn’t until early in the third that we saw goals at last.
The Germans grabbed the lead on the power play, defenceman Lisa Heinz opening the scoring at 5:43 of the third period. Exactly 60 seconds later, Japan tied it up through Sakura Kitamura. Among the assists on those markers were Nina Christof and Yumeka Wajima, who both moved to six points and would lead the tournament in scoring.
Late in the third, another German power play proved decisive. Ronja Hark, impressive throughout the tournament, held off the attentions of an opposing player as they grappled for the puck between the hashmarks. Hark, a 16-year-old who plays her club hockey in Memmingen, managed to wriggle into space and shoot home the winning goal. The German PP brought nine goals in total during the competition, at a conversion rate of 32.16% – a devastating weapon that proved decisive in this crucial game.
There was still drama to come as the host had to kill two penalties in the closing stages. Indeed, the final 100 seconds saw Germany face down a 6-on-4 situation against a team that ran a 25% conversion rate on its own PP during the week. But, apart from one dangerous raid by Wajima, the Japanese were unable to seriously test Sofie Disl in the German net.
Disl won the nomination for the top goalie of the tournament, stopping 96.97% of the shots she faced across four games for a GAA of 0.51. This is her last year at U18 level – she celebrated her 18th birthday on 5th January – and she saved her best for last with 32 saves to deny Japan. Hark finished with three goals from the blue line and was picked as the leading defenceman, while Wajima’s five goals and one assist earned her the best forward prize.
“She was very impressive in the whole tournament,” Busch said of Disl. “And our second goalie, Lilly Uhrmann, was strong as well. But yes, Sofie was very, very good tonight.”
Earlier in Thursday’s play, Hungary defeated Italy in overtime to take the bronze, while Denmark’s last hope of escaping relegation was extinguished in a 0-2 loss against fourth-placed France. The Danes, in their second season at this level after promotion in 2018, began with a shootout loss to Hungary and struggled in the remaining games, failing to score in three of the other four. Norway, winners of Division IB last night, will replace its Scandinavian neighbour at this level next season; Slovakia drops from the top division.