Japan edges Hungary to advance
by Lucas AYKROYD|10 FEB 2024
Japan rejoices after its 2-1 win over host Hungary to advance to the final qualification for the 2026 Olympic men's hockey tournament.
photo: © MJSZ / Dávid Vörös

Japan 2-Hungary 1

In a nervous and hard-fought showdown on Saturday, Japan rallied to stun host Hungary 2-1 to move on to the final Olympic qualification. Jiei Halliday scored the third-period winner.

The Japanese men’s team is now one step closer to making the Olympics for the first time since hosting in 1998 in Nagano.

“Japan played better at the right times in the game,” said Hungarian coach Don MacAdam. “They won the game with hard work and with a little bit of luck. We scored seven goals in each of our previous games but just one in this game, the most important game. Very simple.”

Japanese goalie Yuta Narisawa was stellar as final shots favoured Hungary 37-20.

“We stayed patient in the game,” said Japanese coach Perry Pearn. “You can get outplayed for periods of time as long as you can stay patient. I think we've learned to play really well without the puck. We were patient enough to get a breakthrough.”

The third period was packed with drama. Trailing 1-0, Japan had a glorious chance to tie it up at 1:04 when Istvan Sofron slashed forward Kohei Sato’s stick as he broke into the clear. Sato was awarded a penalty shot, but Hungarian goalie Bence Balisz outwaited him on the forehand deke.

Pearn’s Japanese troops didn’t give up. After Kristof Nemeth was penalized for tripping, the Japanese power play finally capitalized on its sixth opportunity of the night. Captain Shogo Nakajima made it 1-1 at 3:32 on a nice one-timer.

With the Hungarians collapsing around their net, Halliday fired home a loose puck amid a scrum for Japan’s second goal at 5:34. The Red Eagles Hokkaido blueliner has no goals and seven assists in 22 Asian League games this year. Halliday’s scoring touch couldn’t have come alive at a better time.

Sofron, who led Hungary with four goals at the 2023 IIHF World Championship in Finland, had opened the scoring to the delight of the Budapest fans. It was a power-play one-timer from the right faceoff circle with 3:09 left in the second period.

The chippy first period saw both sides struggling on the power play. Hungary first paraded to the penalty box with three back-to-back minors and then failed to convert with a 5-on-3 man advantage that lasted 1:43. In the second period, the hosts carried the play and hemmed Japan in for stretches, but still couldn’t find the range due to overly tentative playmaking.

“It's tough to be the home team,” Pearn said. “I think there was a lot of pressure on the  Hungarian team to win. They've got a big crowd. They played well through the weekend. Pressure is a factor in a game like this. We could be loose – I don't think we were supposed to win.”

The final Olympic qualification takes place between 29 August and 1 September, 2024. Twelve teams will battle for three spots at the 2026 Olympics in Milan, Italy.
photo: © MJSZ / Dávid Vörös

Lithuania 2-Spain 0

On the strength of Elvinas Karla’s 32-save shutout, Lithuania finally got into the win column to come third in Round 3, Group G. Spain, despite finishing last in these Olympic qualifiers, could take away some pride from their best effort in Budapest.

“We had a pretty good start,” said Lithuanian head coach Ron Pasco. “The guys competed hard right to the very end. We defended well when we needed to. I think our special teams, especially the penalty kill, worked really well. The guys did a good job in that area, when we needed it. It’s always nice to finish up on a winning note.”

With Lithuania forechecking effectively, Marijus Dumcius opened the scoring at 16:26. He took a nice pass from below the goal line from Eimantas Noreika and beat Spanish goalie Raul Barbo in tight.

After Ugnius Cizas doubled Lithuania’s lead at 6:23 of the second period, Spanish coach Luciano Basile called his time to regroup. His team continued to press.

Despite outshooting their Baltic opponents 14-5 in the final stanza and pulling Barbo for the extra attacker with under two minutes left, Spain couldn’t buy a goal.

“The puck didn’t really bounce our way this game,” said Spanish forward Dorian Donath. “We had a couple of good scoring chances, but we didn't manage to score any of them. Honestly, we put good pressure on them. We were really close to scoring one. Whenever you’ve got the momentum, it’s easier to keep going, but we just weren’t able to get that first goal.”