Yuichi Usuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Sportswriter SOCHI—Japan’s women’s ice hockey team came off the ice with a loss, but with a boost of confidence as well.
Jenni Asserholt scored off a deflection on a power play 12:38 into the first period and Sweden was hard-pressed to beat Japan 1-0 on Sunday in the opening Group B game for both teams at the Sochi Olympics.
Japan kept the pressure on the favored Swedes and created a number of scoring chances, but just couldn’t get the puck past Valentina Wallner.
The Japanese team will next face host Russia on Tuesday, then concludes group play against Germany on Thursday. Top two teams in the four-team groups advance to medal round.
Japan head coach Yuji Iizuka has stressed to the team that the first five minutes were the key to the game. Although his players had trouble gaining possession of the puck, they also kept the Swedes from threatening the goal.
Even after giving up the power-play goal, Iizuka told the players that the first period it was “the best they had ever played.”
The last time the Japanese women played in Olympic ice hockey, they lost all five games at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Although they failed to qualify again before making it to Sochi, the team showed vast improvement over the last two years.
Canadian Carla Macleod, hired as a coach about two years ago, called the improvement “unbelievable” in January 2013. The next month, Japan qualified for the Sochi Games, then won the world championship division 1A title, which is the equivalent of a second division.
In line with its rising skills, the world No. 10-ranked Japanese more than held its own against the 6th-ranked Swedes.
As Sunday’s game went on, the better-conditioned Japanese created more scoring opportunities. After being outshot 10-5 in the first period, Japan peppered the Swedish goal with eight shots in the third period, when Sweden had just two.
“It showed us we can do it and gave us confidence,” forward Hanae Kubo said.
Even in defeat, a first-ever Olympic victory in the clash against Russia became more of a possibility for Smile Japan, the team’s nickname.