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2022 Worlds Preview: Team Japan

Ice Hockey - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 8 Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Japan - nicknamed ‘Smile Japan’ - moves up to Group A for the first time in the history of the tiered group format.

Last Time Around

It’s been a lot of smiles for Team Japan in their last international tournaments.

In 2021 World Championships, Japan’s finished in sixth place, their highest in history. They went an impressive 3-1 in Group B, only falling to Czechia in their second game. However, they struggled to put the puck in the net, only scoring seven goals in four preliminary games. They allowed six (four of which were in their lone loss) goals.

Japan reseeded to seventh for the quarterfinals where they lined up against the US. They lose 10-2 to move onto the placement rounds. They faced their fellow Group B country Czechia first. This time they were victorious, winning 3-2 to advance to the fifth place game. They played Group A’s Russian Olympic Committee in the fifth place and fell 2-0.

Months later, they took the lessons they learned at Worlds and applied them well at the Olympics. They nearly doubled their goals scored while only allowing one more goal. They finished at the top of Group B, after beating Czechia in the final preliminary game in a shootout.

They reseeded to sixth which meant a quarterfinal date with Finland, where their Olympic journey ended.

Three players to watch

Akane Shiga | Forward

Akane Shiga is Japan’s most dynamic and arguably their most talented player after international star, Nana Fujimoto. Shiga has had a lot of extra attention on her after scoring 4 goals at the 2021 Worlds in Calgary at the age of 20. She’s one of those forwards who can make a move that can change a game, which is something that Team Japan hasn’t exactly had an abundance of in its history.

In Beijing, Shiga was one of Japan’s most consistent threats. She finished the tournament with 2 goals and an assist to go along with an average over 6.0 SOG/GP and an average ice time of 24:27 TOI/GP. Expect her to have a similar stat line in Denmark but the Japanese will be hoping for more offense from her, especially at evens. Everyone knows Japan has a clockwork power play, but to reach their true potential they need to find a way to put pressure on at even strength.

Haruka Toko | Forward

Toko, 25, led Team Japan in scoring in Beijing with 3 goals and 3 assists in 5 GP. She also averaged 24:23 TOI/GP and finished the tournament averaging 4.0 SOG/GP. Most importantly, 5 of her 6 points were primary and three of them were picked up at evens. It was a statement performance after leaving the 2021 Worlds with just two points — both assists — to her name. She’s a top player for Japan and will be expected to make an impact in every game.

Toko will be asked to step into a bigger leadership role in this tournament after the retirement of Chiho Osawa, so there is more pressure on her to deliver and lead than usual. She will be returning to the SDHL after this tournament where she can continue to hone her skills and learn by playing with and against some of the best in the world, like Osawa before her. The next chapter of Toko’s career is very much worth watching and it begins in Denmark.

Ayaka Toko | Defender

Haruka’s sister, Ayaka, is the bedrock of Japan’s defense. Whenever Japan comes away with a victory, you can be sure Toko has played a role in making it happen. Now 27, Toko is in the prime of her playing career and, like her sister, is a key leader for Team Japan.

In Beijing, Toko averaged a massive 29:06 TOI/GP — that’s half the game. That’s an absurd workload for any skater, but Toko always seems to be up to the challenge. She took just one penalty at the 2022 Olympics and finished the tournament with a goal and 3 secondary assists — two of which came on Japan’s power play.

Toko is Japan’s Jenni Hiirikoski. She’ll be on the ice in every situation in Denmark because she’s as trustworthy and intelligent as they come. Once again, Japan will be looking to her to match up against the best forwards in the world. She rarely, if ever, disappoints in that demanding role and still manages to produce offensively.

Storyline

This will be the first time since the tournament went to a tiered group format (2012) that Japan plays in Group A. They’ll also automatically advance to the quarterfinals rather than have to finish in the top three of their group. It guarantees them a spot in the 2023 tournament as well.

There’s not an exactly delicate way to put this but the goal for Japan will be to stay somewhat competitive in their preliminary games. The got routed 10-2 in the 2021 quarterfinal game against the US. I would expect the game against the US, Canada, and Finland to go similarly. Switzerland might be the most interesting game, and I think it being their second game of the tournament is largely to their advantage. They’ll have a chance to get their feet under them in the tournament (first games are always notoriously tough), but not be too late in the tournament to be fatigued.

They’ll almost assuredly play a Group B team in the quarterfinal. That’s where I think they have a great chance to advance to the semifinal, given how they played against similar teams in the last tournament. Japan will have their work cut out for them for sure, but it will be an outstanding test for them to see how they match up against the top in the world.

Schedule

All times are in ET

  • Aug. 25, 9 a.m. vs USA
  • Aug. 26, 12:30 p.m. vs Switzerland
  • Aug. 28, 9 a.m. vs Canada
  • Aug. 29, 9 a.m. vs Finland