In a crucial clash that could decide both teams’ quarter-final aspirations, Japan defeated Sweden 3-1 in both teams’ first match at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. In a 1-1 draw after two periods, Rui Ukita struck the winning goal in a breakaway in the third period before a late strike with empty nets clinched victory.
“We played all three periods really well,” said Japan substitute captain Akane Hosoyamada. “We were really just focused on winning our first game and getting momentum from that, so we stuck to our game plan and it worked out for us.”
“It sucks,” said Sweden captain Michelle Lowenhielm bluntly. “We’re a good team and we had chances, but we just missed the charge and made too many mistakes. We can play a better game.”
Historically, Sweden has had a much stronger women’s ice hockey team than Japan, but the tide has turned somewhat in recent years, with Japan winning 3-2 in their last clash at the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship. While Sweden finished ninth at the tournament and were relegated, Japan achieved their best-ever finish of sixth in Calgary last August.
Not surprisingly, the teams played very evenly for most of the first period, but the Japanese started to exert more pressure as the third progressed. Then, in the last minute, Shiori Koike snuck in from the point and the Swedes completely lost sight of her as she settled into the slot. Suzuka Taka won a fight in the corner and fed the wide open Koike, who hit Emma Soderberg’s top corner with 47 seconds left.
“I was just trying to get the puck to (Taka) and she got it,” said captain Chiho Osawa, who drew the second assist. On how free Koike was up front, Osawa said, “It was a surprise but yeah, she scored a nice goal.”
“It’s such little things that we have to work on,” said Lowenhielm. “We need to communicate and make sure we have someone there. And when we do that, we have good players and we can win games like that. We just have to do it and not make mistakes like that.”
However, the Swedes equalized just 30 seconds into the second period. As they entered the zone, defenseman Maja Nylen-Persson did a good job keeping the puck on the line and then broke to the net. She took a relay feed from Felizia Wikner-Zienkiewicz and then fired a shot that landed just under Nana Fujimoto’s arm and dribbled over the goal line.
After the equalizing goal, Japan regained the upper hand and overtook Sweden in midfield 15:7. However, Söderberg was unbeatable. Sweden’s scoring opportunity for the rest of the period also went to Sweden and wasn’t even a shot on target when Josefin Bouveng’s backhand hit the bar in the 33rd minuterd Minute. The Japanese nearly struck again in the final minute of the third as they broke 2-on-1, but Soderberg made a strong save against Haruka Toko’s one-timer.
“Oh my god, she’s a great goalkeeper,” Lowenhielm said of Söderberg. “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 don’t give her enough help.”
However, four minutes into the third period, Japan regained the lead. Some persistent checks from Shiga sisters Akane and Aoi caused a turnover in the neutral zone and Akane Shiga jumped in alone for Ukita. Shiga made no mistake and hit Soderberg over the blocker with a perfect wrister.
“We’re siblings, so we just have that connection and I just know where it’s going to be, so it’s good,” Akane said of playing with her sister. On goal she added: “I passed the puck to Ukita and I got a good look at him from behind and her shot was really nice.”
Sweden threatened the next power play equalizer when Hikaru Yamashita was penalized for kicking the puck out of play and they turned up the heat when Fujimoto lost her goal stick in a scramble but the Japanese keeper made a big blocker that a point saved shot by Nylen-Persson.
“As a goalie, you experience this situation sometimes and you can’t panic, but you have to trust your teammates and your other skills and just stop the puck differently,” said Fujimoto, who stopped 26 of 27 shots in the game. “I don’t see this as a special case.”
With 2:20 left, Sweden coach Ulf Lundberg called a time-out and drew Söderberg for a sixth attacker. The Swedes pushed hard for the equalizer, but Haruna Yoneyama hit a long empty net at 1:01 to deny victory for Japan.
Both teams will now have a day off before returning to action on Saturday – Japan vs Denmark and Sweden vs Czech Republic.
“We’re so happy because we won and the first game is so important for us,” Osawa said. “We just focused on skating for 60 minutes and it went really well.”
“Every game is a tough game. That’s why we’re here,” said Lowenhielm. “I believe in this team and I believe that if we give everything and play a full 60 we can do it. It won’t be easy, but I know we can change that.”