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Two Third-Period Goals Power Red Eagles Past Free Blades in Japan Cup Final

The team from Hokkaido is one win away from claiming another Japanese ice hockey title in the best-of-five series.

Shuhei Kuji and Shogo Nakajima scored third-period goals on Sunday, March 20 as the Red Eagles Hokkaido beat the Tohoku Free Blades 6-4 to move within one win of capturing the Japan Cup ice hockey final.

Unlike Saturday’s 1-0 overtime win for Hokkaido, there was plenty of scoring in Game 2 at Flat Hachinohe Arena in Aomori Prefecture.

The Red Eagles headed into the third period with a 4-3 lead.

Kuji made it 5-3 just over five minutes into the third when he beat Tohoku goaltender Michikazu Hata with a blistering slap shot from the top of the face-off circle.

Shigeki Hitosato gave the hosts a glimmer of hope just over a minute later when he went in all alone on a breakaway and beat Hokkaido goalie Yuta Narisawa between the pads with a superb backhand shot.

But any hope of a Tohoku comeback was quashed when Nakajima, who scored the lone goal in Game 1, took advantage of a turnover at the opposition blue line and ripped a slap shot from the high slot that beat Hata.

Looking to even the best-of-five series, the Free Blades jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period when the Eagles got into penalty trouble.

Playing with a 5-on-3 advantage, Ryo Tanaka put the Free Blades on the scoreboard at 8 minutes, 15 seconds on a shot from the face-off circle that beat Narisawa low on the glove side.

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Just over a minute later and still on the power play, Tohoku doubled its lead when Junya Yamada banged home a rebound off a shot from the point.

But the Eagles came right back with two of their own before the end of the opening period.

Tsuguto Shibata took a wrist shot that Hata got a piece of with his glove but it trickled through to make it 2-1 at 10:35 of the first period.

With just under three minutes remaining in the opening frame, Taiga Irikura tied it up with a backhander from the slot.

Kenta Takagi tipped in a shot just 1:11 into the second period to give the Red Eagles a 3-2 lead. 

Free Blades defenseman Yuki Sasaki tied the game on a deflection that barely crossed the goal line. 

Late in the second, Seiji Takahashi put Hokkaido ahead 4-3 when he deflected a shot from the point through the pads of Hata.

The Free Blades, who have won three Asia League titles in 2011, 2013, and 2015, had their chances and outshot the Eagles 37 to 32.

The best-of-five finals pits the winner of the first stage, Hokkaido, vs. the second-stage winner, Tohoku.

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Eagles Aiming to Repeat

The series now shifts to the Eagles home arena in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, for Game 3 on Thursday when they will have a chance to add to their illustrious history in Japanese ice hockey. They won the Japan Cup in 2021.

The club was founded as the Oji Eagles in 1925. They have won the Japan League 13 times, the All-Japan Championship 37 times and the Asia League two times (2008, 2012).

In 2021, the team changed its name to Red Eagles Hokkaido.

Normally, the Asia League Ice Hockey features seven teams; five Japanese teams plus one from South Korea, Anyang Halla, and Russia, Sakhalin.

But because of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, the league has just been contested among the five Japanese teams over the past two seasons in the two-stage Japan Cup.

Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.

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