They say it’s a game of centimetres, but less than one centimetre was the difference between Japan and Czechia finishing first in Group B. Hanae Kubo scored the only goal in a shootout – and it barely crossed the line – while Nana Fujimoto stopped all five Czech shooters after stopping 36 of 38 shots through 65 minutes of hockey as Japan beat Czechia 3-2.
“I was a little bit frustrated when I failed to score in the shootout against China, so I was more determined today,” said Kubo.
As a result, Japan finishes first place in Group B and in the quarter-finals will face the third-place team from Group A, still to be determined. Czechia finishes second in Group B and will face the USA, the second-place team from Group A.
“The fact that we don’t have to play Canada or the USA is a big accomplishment for our team,” said Japanese head coach Yuji Iizuka.
Twice Japan took the lead and twice Czechia tied it. During regulation time, both Japanese goals were scored on power plays by Haruka Toko, with older sister Ayaka Toko drawing assists. Denisa Krizova and Natalie Mlynkova replied for the Czechs.
After yesterday’s uninspired 3-2 loss to Denmark, Czech head coach Tomas Pacina called his team out for looking past their opponent. The Czech women responded with a much stronger effort, outshooting Japan 38-24 through 65 minutes of hockey and also blocking several shots, but couldn't quite get the job done.
“The effort was there, for sure, but we still struggled with the finish, with the killer instinct,” said Pacina, whose team held a wide edge in shots all four group games but won only two of them. “The Japanese were tired today and we weren’t. We had lots of energy but were just not loose enough. Other teams score so easily, but we struggle so hard to score.”
It was Japan who got the game’s first good offensive chances on an early power play, and opened the scoring at the four-minute mark. With the puck loose in the slot and the Czech penalty killers scrambling, the Japanese took several shots that were either stopped by Klara Peslarova or blocked, but finally, after having her first attempt blocked, Haruka Toko got the puck back and flipped it over a sprawling Peslarova.
“The power play is our best opportunity to score,” said Toko. “Scoring the first goal was very important for us.”
A scary moment occurred just shy of the 13-minute mark when Czech linemates Alena Mills and Klara Hymlarova collided in the neutral zone. Mills got up immediately but Hymlarova laid motionless on her back for a while. She was finally helped to her feet and off the ice but appeared groggy and did not return to the game. Kristyna Patkova took her spot on the top line with Mills and Vendula Pribylova.
After a relatively evenly-played first period, the Czechs really went to the attack in the first half of the second period, got some momentum from an early power play and tied the score 6:09 in. Carrying the puck to the net, Denisa Krizova fought off a Japanese back-checker and went to her backhand. The shot from in close got caught tangled in Fujimoto’s equipment and eventually fell behind her and across the goal line.
“I thought we were controlling the game. I just wish we scored another goal or two to seal the deal,” said Mills. “We played better than our last game, for sure, but not scoring is frustrating.”
The Czechs nearly lost another player in the second period when Natalie Mlynkova took a slap shot to the side of her helmet while sliding to block it. However, after play was stopped, she was able to get to her feet and skated off the ice on her own accord, returning to the ice later in the period.
In the latter half of the second period, the Japanese pushed back thanks to three straight Czech penalties, including two 43 seconds apart that resulted in a 5-on-3 for the last 55 seconds of the period. But under enormous pressure, the Czech penalty-killers blocked several shots and Peslarova was sharp when she had to be.
However, the Japanese two-player advantage continued into the third period and Japan regained the lead, and it was the Toko sisters who made it happen. After taking a pass from older sister Ayaka, Haruka Toko’s first shot hit the goalpost. She then grabbed the rebound out of a scramble in front and shot it past a diving Peslarova.
“I spoke with my linemates during the intermission about the situation because 5-on-3 is such a great chance to score,” said Toko. “We absolutely needed a goal there and I was so happy to score it.”
The Czechs went back to the attack, however, and five and a half minutes later, the game was tied again. After a faceoff in the Japanese zone, Mlynkova’s shot hit a stick and fluttered through the air and over the shoulder of Fujimoto.
Both teams had power plays to follow and generated little in the way of grade-A scoring chances, but right after returning to the ice, Tereza Vanisova took a breakaway pass and skated in alone on Fujimoto, only to shoot high and wide with about 5:20 to play.
In the second round of the shootout, Kubo skated in on Peslarova and aimed for the goalie’s five-hole. Peslarova appeared to stop it, but the puck grew little legs and crawled over the line, coming to rest with just a little bit of white visible between puck and line. Otherwise, both goalies were perfect. Mills was the fifth and final shooter for Czechia, denied by the blocker of Fujimoto.
“She did a great job today and she helped our team a lot,” Toko said about the Japanese goalie. “Especially in the penalty shootout. She was perfect and we are so fortunate to have her.”
About finishing first in the group and drawing the third seed as a quarter-final opponent, Toko said: “For us, it’s so difficult to play against the USA and Canada, so now we have a little better chance to win. We will see who we play later.”
As for her team’s approach to the quarter-finals, Mills said: “We’ve never played the US and it’s going to be a challenge, but we’ve got to stick to our playbook. I think that’s our only chance to put up a fight against them.”