• Kyodo

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One year before the start of the Pyeongchang Olympics, the Japan women’s ice hockey team took a good first step toward being there.

Smile Japan defeated Austria 6-1 on Thursday behind Hanae Kubo’s hat trick to move to the top of its final Olympic qualifying pool on the first day of competition. The four-team tournament got underway south of Sapporo earlier, when Germany defeated France 3-2 in a penalty shootout.

Japan leads the group with three points, with Germany second, a point back, France (one) third and Austria bringing up the rear with none. The top team from the pool will be playing in South Korea a year from now.

“I was intent on scoring from the first game, so I’m glad I’ve scored three,” Kubo said. “I couldn’t give 100 percent at (the 2014 games in) Sochi and you can only make up for that at the Olympics. So I want to make sure we win and book our tickets here.”

After laying siege to the Austrian goal for much of the first period, Japan took the lead with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left on Kubo’s first. With time running out on a power play, 20-year-old Rui Ukita unleashed a vicious slap shot from near the blue line that Kubo deflected into the goal.

Austria captain Esther Kantor, however, tied it up with a slick wrist shot behind goalie Nana Fujimoto with 21 seconds left in the period.

Shiori Koike scored 2:53 into the second period, when she flipped a loose puck into the net after Austrian goalie Theresa Hornich failed to control it under pressure from Moeko Fujimoto and Kubo made it 3-1 four minutes later.

Kubo moved in front of the goal and executed perfectly after a good pass from behind the net from Haruka Toko.

“The second was off a set play we always practice and it was the most pleasing out of three as it clicked really well,” Kubo said.

Down by two goals, the Austrians began attacking with renewed energy, peppering Fujimoto with shots, while the Japanese looked for holes to exploit.

Both goalies weathered the storm, but Shoko Ono put in a loose puck four minutes into the final period to make it 4-1. Kubo added her third on a power play with three minutes left and Akane Hosoyamada’s shot with less than two minutes to play deflected off a defender’s skate to close out the scoring.

“It’s OK to be attack-minded, but we failed to clean up too many loose pucks in front of our goal and we have to address that before our next game,” head coach Takeshi Yamanaka said.

The action will continue on Saturday, when Germany plays Austria and Japan takes on France, and will wrap up on Sunday.

Six teams have already booked spots for next year’s Winter Olympics, while Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Norway are battling in Arosa, Switzerland, for the other vacancy.

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