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Smile Japan must build on progress

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

The women’s national ice hockey team, Smile Japan, ended its Olympic tournament with a 2-3 record on Tuesday night following a 1-0 loss to Switzerland in the fifth-place game.

Though Japan was eliminated from medal contention in the Group B preliminary round with a 1-2 mark, the team still made significant progress while playing in just its third Olympics.

After losing its opening game to Sweden 2-1, Japan fell to Switzerland 3-1, before beating Korea 4-1 in the final group contest.

Japan defeated Sweden 2-1 in their 5th-8th-place classification-round game on Feb. 18 on defender Ayaka Toko’s dramatic overtime goal.

The victory over Korea on Feb. 14 was a watershed moment for Smile Japan as it ended a 12-game losing streak that dated back to the 1998 Nagano Games.

What Japan needs to do now is find a way to build upon the progress it has made since going 0-5 at the Sochi Games four years ago.

Japan’s players are quick and agile and show very good teamwork, but I believe they need a couple more scorers to compete with the elite.

The most goals Japan scored here in a game was four and that was against the combined Korean team. Japan tallied just one goal in the two losses to Switzerland and it is clear it is going to need more offense to compete for a medal at the 2022 Beijing Games.

Japan outshot its opponents in all five games in the tournament, with a cumulative advantage of 170-100, but was only able to muster a total of eight goals.

“Overall, five-on-five, we keep up with Sweden and Switzerland,” defender Akane Hosoyamada stated following the victory over Korea. “But in the offensive end, just finishing up and capitalizing on opportunities are the main improvements we need.”

Japan also must learn to deal with the physical manner in which its opponents often play. The Japan players compensate for their lack of strength with speed, but have to learn how to mix it up more and not avoid contact.

Having seen them in action several times over the past month, my analysis is that goalie Nana Fujimoto, forward Chiho Osawa (the team captain) and Hosoyamada are the best players on the squad. Forward Rui Ukita and Toko are also valuable contributors.

“At the last Olympic Games in Sochi, we lost all of our games and it was very disappointing and a sad moment,” Ukita commented during the tournament. “But since then we have worked very hard to improve.”

Indeed they have.

Defender Aina Takeuchi provided some detail on this point.

“After Sochi, especially in the past two years, we have had a national team camp every month,” Takeuchi said. “We do physical things, running, powerful things. We train to do our best every single time.”

The Japan Ice Hockey Federation’s investment in Smile Japan is definitely showing dividends.

By finishing sixth in the Olympic tournament, Japan moved up to eighth in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s latest world rankings, where 38 nations are listed.

The win over Sweden, which is ranked fifth, was significant in that is showed Japan can play with higher-ranked teams and beat them. The loss to the Swedes in the opener was the reason that Japan did not advance to the medal round here.

The top four teams by ranking in the world are the U.S., Canada, Finland (the bronze medalist) and Russia. Switzerland is sixth and Germany seventh.

The Smile Japan team members all attended the epic gold medal game that the U.S. women won 3-2 in a shootout on Thursday night at Gangneung Hockey Centre. Watching the action intently, I’m sure that the players and staff were impressed by what they saw from the two powerhouses, but also realized that there is still a significant gap between them and the best in the world.

After Japan’s historic first Olympic victory over Korea, Osawa talked about the future.

“We feel great about the first win against the Korean team,” Osawa stated. “Our next goal is to try to beat stronger nations in the next Olympic Games.”