When the Japan women’s ice hockey team makes its first Olympic appearance next month at the Sochi Games since gaining entrance through an automatic berth at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, it will be out to shock the world with a podium finish.
Yuji Iizuka believes his women are a vastly improved squad from the team that suffered the ignominy of losing all five games in its own backyard in Nagano, where Japan gained entry to the first women’s Olympic competition by virtue of being the host country.
Defenseman Yoko Kondo, the oldest member of the squad at 34, is the only one left who was there for that embarrassment.
“We were out of our depth,” said Kondo. “We were lacking in every aspect of the game.”
This time however, Iizuka is confident his women have a real chance to medal in the eight-nation competition, given that other than the United States and Canada (the two powerhouses) third place will basically be up for grabs between six teams.
“Other than the United States and Canada, we’re talking a free-for-all. The scheme is that the remaining six teams will be vying for third place. We want to shock everyone,” said Iizuka.
Japan, ranked the lowest of those competing at 10th in the world, will face off against sixth-ranked Sweden, fourth-ranked Russia and qualifier Germany in Group B round-robin play, and will have a chance of advancing to the quarterfinals by finishing in the top two.
The top four teams in the world rankings following the 2012 world championships, including Canada, the United States, Finland and Switzerland, comprise Group A.
The bottom two Group A teams play the top two Group B teams in the quarterfinals, where the winners play either the first or second place team in Group A in the semifinals.
“Smile Japan,” as the Japanese women’s team is nicknamed, will rely heavily on their unyielding defense to compensate for what they lack in physical stature.
But they must also find ways to score, capitalizing, for example, when the opposing goalie tries to clear the puck. Last February at the final Olympic qualifiers, Japan fired off 62 shots against Slovakia without scoring once. Since booking its Olympic berth, Japan has been testing ways of using its forwards to block the field of vision of its opponents’ goalies.
Aiming shots at the goalie’s feet makes it easier for the puck to slip away and flicking off shots at a goalie’s shoulders when she drops to her knees also creates opportunities for scoring.
“We will have a lot pressure, but Japan’s weapon is our agility and our peskiness. If we can steal the puck from our opponents, opportunities will come for us. We want to follow in the footsteps of Nadeshiko Japan,” said veteran forward Hanae Kubo, referring to the Japan women’s soccer team that won the 2011 World Cup.
“I have been working on shots that rise directly at the goalie’s shoulders. It’s not easy, but it increases our chances of scoring,” Kubo added.
Kondo said she has learned from the mistakes of the past when Japan exited in the qualifying round in Nagano, especially after suffering a 6-1 drubbing to China.
“China scored on us because of my own mistakes, which resulted in us losing momentum,” said Kondo, who was sidelined when Japan qualified for the Olympics last February due to a knee injury suffered at the end of 2011. “I never want to experience the disappointment I did in Nagano ever again, so I am determined to show that I am up for the fight when it comes to one-on-one coverage.”
Iizuka believes Japan will get its chance on the big stage, if the women can keep the games low scoring and win at least two games in the preliminary round. That will mean beating either Sweden or Russia and, no matter what, not losing to Germany.