Japan edges Czechs in shootout to top Group B in women’s ice hockey

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hanae Kubo scores past Czech goalkeeper Klara Peslarova for the lone goal in a penalty shootout on Tuesday.

BEIJING — The goalkeeper quickly looked back and made a dive for the puck. But it had already come to stop, just over the red line.

Hanae Kubo managed to get enough on her shot in the penalty shootout to slip it past the goalie, giving Japan a 3-2 victory over the Czech Republic on Tuesday and the top spot in their preliminary round group in women’s ice hockey at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

“I’m happy, but this is just a checkpoint along the way,” said team captain Chiho Osawa. “We’re aiming for a medal by being aggressive and using our speed.”

Haruka Toko scored a pair of power play goals in regulation at the Wukesong Sports Centre as Japan finished Group B with nine points, two more than the Czechs. That puts the team, nicknamed “Smile Japan,” into a quarterfinal clash with Finland on Feb. 12 — while the Czechs have to face the powerful United States.

In the Olympic tournament, all five teams in Group A — the top-ranked teams in the world — advance to the quarterfinals, with group play determining seedings. The top three in Group B fill the final places.

Japan, ranked sixth in the world, had just come off a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to host China. While that gave Japan a point that clinched a place in the quarterfinals, the squad was looking for a victory over the seventh-ranked Czech Republic to achieve its goal of winning the group.

In the end it came down to the team’s veterans, the 39-year-old Kubo and 32-year-old goalkeeper Nana Fujimoto, who stopped all five of the Czech Republic’s shots in the penalty shootout.

It was no surprise that Tuesday’s game would turn into such a thriller. At last year’s world championships, the Czechs won a clash between the two in the preliminary round, but Japan came back and avenged the loss in the first round of the playoff for fifth to eighth places.

Toko started the scoring with a power play goal at 4:00 of the first period, slotting the puck off a rebound, before Denisa Krizova tied it for the Czechs in the second period.

The Czechs started the third period with a player in the penalty box, and Toko took advantage with her second goal just 23 seconds into the period. But the Czechs kept up the pressure and Natalie Mlynkova notched the tying goal at 45:53. Neither team could score in the five-minute overtime, in which Japan had no shots on goal, sending the game to a shootout.

Kubo, Japan’s fourth shooter, shot hard between the pads of goalkeeper Klara Peslarova. The puck hit the inside of Peslarova’s pad then trickled over the line.

For Toko, her two goals — with sister Ayaka getting an assist on both — were payoff for being more aggressive on offense. Taking advantage of scoring opportunities has been a weak point for Japan.

“I thought I have to start taking shots,” Toko said. “We’ll go into the next game with the feeling of being the challenger.”