Japan Struggles in World Championship Opening Round, Narrowly Avoids Relegation

Japan lost three games to start the tournament, which almost cost them their spot in next year's top tournament. But amid the challenges, Riko Kawaguchi delivered great performances.

Japan Struggles in World Championship Opening Round, Narrowly Avoids Relegation
Riko Kawaguchi shone for Japan amid tough stretch of games | Photo via IIHF

Japan finished the preliminary round of the tournament with just one win. The win came against Denmark in the final game of the round. It was the deciding factor that saved Japan from relegation out of the top fleet of international women's hockey.

Japan competed last year in Group A with teams like Canada and the USA. They struggled and were demoted to Group B for this 2024 tournament. As an up-and-coming team, I thought Japan would lead their group.

Star forward Akane Shiga started their tournament on a good note with the team's opening goal. Less than five minutes into the game against China, Shiga used a beautiful dangle to beat the Chinese goaltender.

The shot fooled goaltender Jiahui Zhan, but little else did. Zhan faced an enormous 52 shots and allowed only two goals, according to the box score.

China only managed 17 shots, but two beat Japanese netminder Miyuu Masuhara. A shootout goal by Yingying Guan sealed the deal, and China upset Japan to start the tournament.

Japan's second game against Germany was extremely tight, excluding the score. Shots were neck and neck, but the Germans took a 2-0 lead. Akane Shiga scored her second tournament goal in the dying minutes of the game, but two empty-net goals by the Germans closed the game at 4-1.

Goaltender Riko Kawaguchi played exceptionally well against Germany and ended the game with a .926 save percentage. Her performance earned her the start in Japan's matchup with Sweden, which began less than 18 hours after the Germany game ended.

She faced 42 Swedish shots and allowed five goals in an onslaught that saw Japan lose 6-2. In the final preliminary game, Japan dominated Denmark in which Kawaguchi had an eight-save shutout.

Japan was competitive in their first two games and should have won at least one. Their scoring struggles and goaltending issues in the opening games put them in a precarious situation. Japan was lucky China lost to Denmark; otherwise, it could have easily been Japan facing relegation to the second-tier tournament next year.

It's clear to me that Kawaguchi is Japan's top netminder moving forward. She has been Japan's best player with a .909 save percentage, according to the IIHF website. According to her Wikipedia page, Kawaguchi played in the Japanese women's league and played for her high school team in Kushiro in Northern Japan.

Japan's offensive performance in the preliminary round was underwhelming. They were the second least efficient team, with a shooting percentage of just 5.9 percent, according to IIHF stats. They've scored only eight times on 135 shots. Akane Shiga leads the team with two goals and three assists, which, in four games, actually puts her within the top ten of tournament scoring.

Chance played a big part in Japan's results so far. They'll play the undefeated USA in the quarterfinals on April 11 at 8:30 p.m. eastern. It's a tall order to ask for a win, but it's an opportunity for the team to show why it belongs in the top flight of women's hockey.