It was a rough trip from the Land of the Rising Sun to Sochi in 2014, where Team Japan failed to win even a single game and ended their Olympics 0-5. They ended up finishing 7th out of 8 teams due to Russia being disqualified, and have been floating around the IIHF bubble ever since.
After qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in one of the last play-in tournaments, Smile Japan is getting ready to turn things around in Pyeongchang. With several players with North American experience and plenty of returners from Sochi, there will definitely be a chance for Team Japan to get in the win column and make a little bit of noise.
Ayaka Toko might be one of Japan’s best scorers from the blue line and could be a threat to keep an eye on in Korea. Toko scored two goals back in Sochi, and more recently scored a goal and two assists in five games at the 2017 IIHF Division I World Championships. Toko was also named best defender of the tournament.
The captain of Team Japan, Shiho Osawa, is also a name to keep an eye on. Held to just one goal and two assists in 2014, Osawa responded with two goals and two assists in 2017. Osawa is confident in her team heading into 2018, and said in an interview with the Japan Times after Worlds,
“We did better here than we did in the games leading to the Sochi Olympics [in 2014]. We’ve improved as a team and everyone knows what they have to do to win.”
In net for Team Japan will likely be Nana Fujimoto, who many of you may remember as an inaugural New York Riveter. Fujimoto represented the Riveters in the first-ever NWHL All-Star Game. She posted a .918 save percentage in 2017 across three starts, including an 11-save shutout.
You would be remiss to ignore defender Akane Hosoyamada, who tallied a hat trick against Norway in Division I Worlds. The former Syracuse blueliner is only in her second year with Team Japan, but her 10 goals and 51 assists in 151 career games are an impressive feat. Hosoyamada received heaps of praise from her coach at Syracuse, and should be on everyone’s radar as they get ready to watch Team Japan this February.
Japan is playing in Group B with Sweden, Switzerland, and Korea.
- February 10, Japan vs Sweden, @ 2:40 AM EST
- February 12, Switzerland vs Japan, @ 2:40 AM EST
- February 14, Korea vs Japan, @ 2:40 AM EST
It’s a tough draw for Team Japan, who has to get past Sweden, a pre-tournament favorite to medal, and then Switzerland, who always poses a challenge. Even the Korea game could be challenging as the two teams have developed something of a rivalry over the years.
Leadership and confidence will be huge for Team Japan. It would be egregious to say Japan has a clear path to a medal, but if they come out strong against Sweden, anything is possible. There is no way they go winless like they did in 2014, so look at Pyeongchang as a chance for some improvement with Smile Japan.