Japan most certainly isn't known as a hockey hotbed. Far from it, in fact. But throughout the Japanese women's hockey team's opening game of the 2022 Winter Olympics, it was pretty hard to tell that hockey isn't one of the nation's top pastimes.
The Japanese squad took down Sweden — a country that actually is a hockey hotbed — by a score of 3-1 to start the competition off on the right foot. And despite what the score suggests, Japan beat the Swedes rather handily. They outshot the Swedes 40-27 and generated offensive scoring chances far more consistently than their opposition, and it wound up earning them a huge victory.
Japanese netminder Nana Fujimoto was outstanding throughout the night, turning 26 shots aside to guide her squad to the win.
Both teams earned some solid scoring chances in the opening stanza, but Japan had the clear advantage in terms of quality. Japan generated several high-danger opportunities that nearly resulted in goals in the game's first 20 minutes, but Emma Soderberg managed to keep the game scoreless until the final minute of the period, when Japan's Shiori Koike was left completely unguarded in the low slot and roofed the puck to give her squad the early lead.
It didn't take the Swedes long to tie the game back up after the intermission, though. Just 30 seconds into the second period, Maja Nylen Persson scored Sweden's first goal of the competition to knot the game up at one apiece after a shot trickled past Fujimoto.
Unfortunately for the Swedes, Japan bounced right back in the third period, thanks to the stellar play of Rui Ukita. Ukita was a menace in the final frame, generating several quality scoring chances in the third period alone. But it was at the 4:03 mark of the period where she found twine with a sick wrister on the rush.
Ukita finished the contest with three shots on goal and 27:13 of ice time.
Sweden attempted one last push in the game's final minutes by pulling Soderberg for the extra attacker, but Japan's Haruna Yoneyama sealed the deal with an empty netter with one minute remaining, giving her team a solid two-goal cushion.
This Japanese team isn't expected to compete for a medal, but their performance against a solid Swedish team Thursday morning was eyebrow-raising. They were tenacious and strong on the puck from start to finish, and they look the part of a team that could make some legitimate noise in the round robin portion of the schedule.
Don't sleep on this Japanese squad. They're much better than their reputation as a hockey country suggests.