SAPPORO – Japan got in a good workout on Saturday, knocking off defending gold medalist Kazakhstan 6-0 in the opener of the Asian Winter Games women’s ice hockey tournament.
Smile Japan, which six days earlier qualified to play in next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics and is looking for is first Asian Games gold, dominated the ice, outskating the Kazakhs and robbing them of possession at every turn.
“This game was an opportunity for us to grow defensively,” Japan head coach Takeshi Yamanaka said. “We accomplished what we came to do. We limited them to three shots and that is extremely satisfying.”
“There were a few things we didn’t do so well, we missed a number of scoring chances. Of course, I wanted us to score more goals, but they have a good goalie and I think overall we played well. Our priority was to keep them from putting pressure on us and we did that.”
Ami Nakamura opened the scoring 6 minutes, 53 seconds into the game on a power play, an area where their performance in Olympic qualifying had been less than satisfactory. Captain Chiho Osawa added another just before the end of the first period.
Shoko Ono scored from long range 2:22 into the second period, and 11 minutes later, Osawa scored a short-handed goal. Rui Ukita finished the period with Japan’s fifth goal, and Nakamura scored on the power play again with a minute left to go.
“We needed to be able to match their speed, so we studied them on video,” Nakamura said. “Our game is speed and we want to make sure we have that advantage.”
“During Olympic qualifying, I missed one scoring chance after another, and I thought that streak was going to continue here until I scored at last.”
Japan Sports Agency commissioner Daichi Suzuki, who cheered on the women last week in qualifying, was back and beaming after the game.
“With the pressure off, they looked loose compared to last week,” Suzuki said.
After a day off on Sunday, when the opening ceremony will be held, Smile Japan will take on Pyeongchang Olympic host South Korea on Monday.
“The day after tomorrow, we have South Korea. Because that’s a team we will play in the Olympics, that’s a big game for us,” playmaking forward Haruka Toko said.
Osawa said the South Koreans have improved a great deal in a hurry.
“It’s going to be interesting, because we haven’t played them in a long time,” she said. “They are extremely skilled at working within a system.”