Behind the stellar play of goalie Miyuu Masuhara and shootout goals from Haruka Toko and Remi Koyama, Smile Japan scored an inspired 1-0 win over favored Finland in their fifth-place game at the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Frederikshavn, Denmark, on Sunday, September 4.
The unexpected result gave the Hinomaru its best result ever at the worlds and represented a remarkable reversal of fortune. After losing the first four games of the annual tournament by a combined score of 31-4 to the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Finland, respectively, things looked bleak for Japan.
A narrow 2-1 shootout loss to the Swiss in the first placement round game on Thursday, September 1 signaled the beginning of a turnaround for Japan. The team outshot Switzerland 33-24 in the loss and put together several good stretches of play in the contest.
In the second placement round game against Sweden on Saturday, Japan battled to a hard fought 5-4 victory, prevailing on Koyama’s goal with 2:48 left in the third period to set up a rematch with the Finns the following day.
Masuhara Saves the Day
Masuhara, a 20-year-old from Hokkaido, was nothing short of spectacular against the Finns, keeping her team in the game through regulation and overtime with one stop after another. She made a phenomenal 61 saves in all in the triumph.
Japan only got off 16 shots on goal against Finland, but Masuhara’s fine play negated the huge differential in that category.
After Noora Tulus scored for Finland in the first round of the shootout, Masuhara stopped the next three shooters, with Toko and Koyama scoring past goalie Anni Keisala in the third and fourth rounds to give Japan a 2-1 lead. Then, in a fitting conclusion, Masuhara blocked a shot by Viivi Vainikka in the fifth round to clinch the win. Masuhara was mobbed by her joyous teammates after making the final save.
Finland captain Jenni Hiirikoski provided a succinct description of the battle with Japan on Sunday.
“I think the whole game was pretty much Finland against Masuhara,” Hiirikoski was quoted as saying by the IIHF website. “She did an awesome job, and I think we definitely had enough chances to score.”
Masuhara, who was on Japan’s team at the Beijing Olympics but did not dress for a single game, emerged as a star after relieving Akane Konishi in the opening loss to the United States.
“Against the US, I only felt the fun, that I’m playing the world championship,” Masuhara stated. “Then, getting to play many times through the games, I got the feeling that it’s possible to feel like I can give more contributions to the team. That was a massive change inside me, the feeling that it’s possible for me to contribute.”
Building for the Future
Japan captain Shiori Koike was pleased with the result and is already looking ahead.
“Of course, we are so happy with fifth place, it’s never happened before,” Koike commented. “But we have to prepare for the upcoming worlds (in 2023).”
Sunday’s victory over Finland means that Japan will remain in Group A with the United States, Canada, Switzerland and Czechia for next year’s worlds in Canada.
Author: Jack Gallagher