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2019 World Championship Preview: Japan

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Can Japan surprise Sweden and the rest of Group B?

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Schedule

Japan is in group B with Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, and France.

  • April 4, 11:00 a.m. ET | Japan vs France
  • April 6, 11:00 a.m. ET | Japan vs Germany
  • April 8, 5:30 a.m. ET | Japan vs Czech Republic
  • April 9, 5:30 a.m. ET | Japan vs Sweden

Roster

  • Forwards: Haruna Yoneyama, Suzuka Taka, Hikaru Yamashita, Moeko Fujimoto, Mei Miura, Kaho Suzuki, Rui Ukita, Hanae Kubo, Haruka Toko, Yoshino Enomoto, Remi Koyama, Akane Shiga, Chiho Osawa
  • Defenders: Akane Hosoyamada, Shiori Koike, Shiori Yamashita, Ayaka Toko, Sena Suzuki, Aoi Shiga, Kanami Seki
  • Goalies: Nana Fujimoto, Mai Kondo, Akane Konishi

Players to Watch

Our players to watch are based on previous tournaments.

Nana Fujimoto

Fujimoto is Japan’s most popular and talented player. If you want to know why Japan defeated Sweden at the 2018 Olympics, look no further than Nana Fujimoto.

The veteran goaltender and NWHL alumna allowed five goals at even strength in her four starts at the Pyeongchang Olympics. She finished the Olympic tournament with a .920 save percentage and a 1.78 goals against average — a marked improvement from the .886 save percentage she had in Sochi. Fujimoto was the main reason why Japan finished with an 84.42 percent penalty kill in Pyeongchang. For years she’s been doing everything she has to do to keep her team in big games.

Fujimoto’s athleticism and reflexes make her an entertaining and effective goaltender capable of making second and even third saves in sequences around Japan’s goal crease. You can probably count the games where she wasn’t the team’s best player in major tournament games on one hand. She’s that good.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Ayaka Toko

Toko is Japan’s best defender. She won honors as the Best Defenseman at the Division I 2017 Women’s Worlds and picked up three points in the tournament. At the 2018 Olympics Toko led all Japanese skaters with a 24:27 average ice time per game. She led all of Japan’s defenders in shots on goal (15) and scored an even strength goal in the tournament.

This will be a big tournament for the 24-year-old. It’s no secret that Japan needs to generate more offense from its blue line and Toko will be the player with the most weight on her shoulders to produce in addition to her role as a shutdown defender and penalty killer.

Chiho Osawa

Japan’s captain is the only Japanese player who played in the top tier of the SDHL. She’s almost certainly the most impactful Japanese player playing pro hockey right now. This year, Osawa won the SDHL title with Luleå Hockey/MSSK.

Osawa didn’t spend the entire season with Luleå’s top club, but she did score eight goals and earn 10 assists in 36 regular season games after she was promoted. More importantly, she produced for Luleå in the playoffs, picking up six assists and earning 16 shots in 16 games for the SDHL’s top team. It’s safe to say that Osawa more than held her own in one of the top professional leagues in women’s hockey.

The 27-year-old had a somewhat disappointing performance in Pyeongchang, picking up just one point — a primary assist — in the tournament. However, Osawa finished second among Japan’s skaters in shots on goal (17) and was the second most-deployed forward (21:01 TOI/GP) behind Haruka Toko. Osawa will be a big part of Japan’s offense in Finland. She’s one of the players who needs to finish if Japan’s offense wants to earn more respect from the rest of the hockey world.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Last Time Around

Japan proved their quality by winning gold at the Division I 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Austria. After a close call against Team Hungary in their first game, “Smile Japan” more or less cruised through the rest of the tournament. They beat Austria — who finished in second — by a score of 4-1 and out-gunned Norway — who finished in third — by a score of 5-3 thanks to an empty-net goal.

Team Japan looked very much like their old selves in Pyeongchang. In group play, they lost to Sweden by a margin of just one goal and out-shot Switzerland 31 to 18, but lost by a score of 3-1. Japan shocked the hockey world by defeating Sweden in overtime on April 18 in the first round of the fifth place bracket. Japan was shut out by Team Switzerland two days later but their sixth place finish was still a huge success.

Storylines

Japan has a lot to prove after being relegated to Division I at the 2016 Worlds. They definitely made major some steps in the right direction with their first place finish in the Division I Worlds in 2017 and with their performance in Pyeongchang. But the hockey world is still waiting on this program to take their game to the next level.

Goaltending and defense has never been Team Japan’s problem, but the same cannot be said of its offense. In Pyeongchang, the only team that Japan scored more than one goal against in regulation was the host nation’s unified Korean team. A team-wide 4.71 shooting percentage in Pyeongchang had a lot to do with that lack of production, but Japan also struggled to generate quality scoring chances against better teams.

In Finland, Japan’s offense needs to deliver. The veteran forwards on this team need to break through at even strength and on the power play. You can’t win games without scoring goals and few national teams have learned that lesson as many times as Smile Japan.

Data courtesy of sdhl.se, eliteprospects.com, and the author’s own tracking.