The Japanese women's hockey team made Russia work for a 2-1 win today, to the surprise of many. But Japan's played much better than predicted, losing closely in two games against much better competition. On top of that, they've been a lot of fun both on and off the ice. Let's learn more about these girls.
Who's on the roster?
Azusa Nakaoku, Akane Konishi, Nana Fujimoto, Shiori Koike, Yoko Kondo, Ayaka Toko, Kanae Aoki, Sena Suzuki, Mika Hori, Aina Takeuchi, Tomoe Yamane, Haruna Yoneyama, Yurie Adachi, Chiho Osawa, Moeko Fujimoto, Rui Ukita, Yuka Hirano, Tomoko Sakagami, Miho Shishiuchi, Hanae Kubo, and Ami Nakamura. No one you would really know.
Are they normally this good?
Not in international play. Japan was the most surprising qualifier in women's hockey, though they were the first Japanese athletes to qualify for the 2014 Olympics. The team, currently ranked 10th in the world, does well within their own continent, placing second in every Asian Winter Games since 1996, but they struggle with international play. Since 1990, their best finish in the IIHF World Women's Championship has been seventh place. Japan hasn't qualified for the Olympics since 1998, when the Olympics were held in Nagano—the host country gets automatic entry into every event. They finished sixth.
So, their two losses at Sochi aren't bad?
Well, it obviously would have been better if Japan had won, but they're still playing well against superior competition. A 1-0 loss to Sweden was a pleasant surprise, and today's 2-1 loss to Russia was very nearly a legitimate upset. The score was tied 1-1 late in the third period before Russia pulled ahead with a shorthanded goal.
The team has performed well on the strength of its goalie, Nana Fujimoto. In Japan's first game against Sweden, Fujimoto turned away 22 of the 23 shots she faced, and today against Russia she stood tall once again, stopping 36 shots. In two games, Fujimoto's save percentage is a robust 95. And since her team isn't all that great, Fujimoto has had to make a lot of these saves in breakaway situations.
Do they have a cool nickname?
They've been dubbed "Smile Japan." Cute!
What are their strengths?
The squad plays quickly. They don't have the size of other countries, but speed is their biggest advantage. And, as was mentioned above, Fujimoto's goalkeeping has been superb.
Can we see some tape?
Sure! Well, uh, here's them getting shut out 6-0 by the Minnesota women's hockey team in an exhibition last year.
For less devastating footage, here's Smile Japan scoring their first Olympic goal since 1998 today, on a filthy knuckle-puck by Ayaka Toko.
As you might imagine, the team's first Olympic goal in 16 years was cause for some celebrating:
What are they like off the ice?
Just as likable! Like a lot of athletes who play low-tier Olympic sports, many of the girls had to work regular jobs in order to make ends meet while training for the Olympics. Forward Tomoko Sakagami had a gig delivering pizzas, Azusa Nakaoku works at a sporting good store, and Yuka Hirano works for a convenience store chain. But they all find time to play hockey on nights and weekends. Tomoe Yamane explains her reason for continuing to play:
By playing ice hockey, I learned the importance of building human relationships and patience through work. Winning at the Olympics is not only for myself—it is also to repay the favour to my team.
Anything else I need to know?
In addition to being a lovable underdog, the Japanese team knows how to have fun. When they first arrived in Sochi, they were allowed some practice time on the Olympic rink, but instead of running drills, the girls decided to soak in the moment of actually being at the Olympics. That's how we got these great photos:
When's their next game, and why should I watch?
Thursday, against Germany. Smile Japan has no chance at a medal, but if they can play Russia to a one-goal difference, they have a legitimate chance at finally getting a victory, and that would be great to see.