In a key match-up that could go a long way to deciding the quarter-final aspirations of both teams, Japan edged Sweden 3-1 in the first game for both teams at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. With the game tied 1-1 after two periods, Rui Ukita scored the winning goal on a third-period breakaway before a late empty-netter iced it.
“We played really well all three periods,” said Japanese alternate captain Akane Hosoyamada. “We were really just focusing on winning our first game and getting momentum off of that, so we stuck to our game plan and it worked out for us.”
“It sucks,” Swedish captain Michelle Lowenhielm said bluntly. “We’re a good team and we had the chances, but we just missed on the rush and we made too many mistakes. We can play a better game.”
Historically, Sweden has had a much stronger women’s hockey team than Japan, but the tables have turned somewhat in recent years, with Japan prevailing 3-2 in their last meeting at the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship. While the Swedes finished ninth in that tournament and were relegated, Japan had its highest-ever finish last August in Calgary in sixth.
Unsurprisingly, the teams played very evenly for most of the first period but the Japanese started to press more as the period wore on. Then in the final minute, Shiori Koike snuck in from the point and the Swedes totally lost track of her as she set up shop in the slot. Suzuka Taka won a battle in the corner and fed the wide-open Koike, who picked the top corner on Emma Soderberg with 47 seconds to play in the period.
“I just tried to put the puck to (Taka) and she got it,” said captain Chiho Osawa, who drew the secondary assist. About how free Koike was in front, Osawa said: “It was a surprise but, yeah, she scored a nice goal.”
“It’s the little things like that we’ve gotta work on,” said Lowenhielm. “We’ve gotta communicate and make sure we have someone there. And if we do that, we’ve got good players and we can win these kinds of games. We’ve just gotta do it and not make mistakes like that.”
However, the Swedes tied it just 30 seconds into the second period. As they entered the zone, defender Maja Nylen-Persson did a good job to keep the puck in at the line, then broke for the net. She took a relay feed from Felizia Wikner-Zienkiewicz and then fired a shot that just found its way under the arm of Nana Fujimoto and dribbled across the goal line.
After the equalizing goal, Japan went back to carrying the edge in play and outshot Sweden 15-7 in the middle frame. Soderberg wasn’t to be beaten, however. Sweden’s scoring chance the rest of the way in the period also went to Sweden and wasn’t even a shot on goal, as Josefin Bouveng’s backhander rang off the crossbar in the 33rd minute. The Japanese nearly struck in the last minute of the period again as they broke in 2-on-1 but Soderberg made a huge save off Haruka Toko’s one-timer.
“Oh my God, she’s a great goalie,” Lowenhielm said of Soderberg. “She’s helping us a lot back there and making some sick saves and I can’t say enough about her. It’s sad that we’re not giving her enough help.”
Japan did regain the lead four minutes into the third period, however. Some tenacious checking by the Shiga sisters, Akane and Aoi, caused a turnover in the neutral zone and Akane Shiga sprung Ukita in alone. Shiga made no mistake, beating Soderberg with a perfect wrister over the blocker.
“We’re siblings, so we just have that connection and I just know where she’s gonna be, so it’s good,” Akane said about playing with her sister. On the goal, she added: “I passed the puck to Ukita and I had a good view of it from behind, and her shot was really nice.”
Sweden threatened for the next equalizer on the power play when Hikaru Yamashita was penalized for shooting the puck out of play, and they turned up the heat when Fujimoto lost her goal stick in a scramble but the Japanese goalie made a big blocker save off a point shot from Nylen-Persson.
“When you’re a goalie, you experience this situation sometimes and you cannot panic, but you must trust your teammates and your other skills and just stop the puck a different way,” said Fujimoto, who stopped 26 of 27 shots in the game. “I don’t see it as a special case.”
With 2:20 to play, Swedish coach Ulf Lundberg called a timeout and pulled Soderberg for a sixth attacker. The Swedes pressed hard for the equalizer but Haruna Yoneyama hit a long-distance empty-netter with 1:01 to play to ice the victory for Japan.
Both teams now get a day off before returning to action on Saturday – Japan against Denmark and Sweden against Czechia.
“We are so happy because we got the win and the first game is so important for us,” said Osawa. “We just focused on skating for 60 minutes and it went very well.”
“Every game is a tough game. That’s why we’re here,” said Lowenhielm. “I believe in this team and I believe we can do it if we go all out and play a full 60. It’s not gonna be easy but I know we can turn this around.”