An overtime thunderbolt from Ayaka Toko secured Japan its second win of the 2018 Games, making it the most successful in the country's hockey history.
Japan followed up its Group B victory over Korea with an overtime success against Sweden. That's the first time the Japanese have defeated a European nation in Olympic play, and puts Takeshi Yamanaka's team on course for its best ever Olympic placing.
Olympic match-ups between these two countries have a habit of being tight. In Sochi, Sweden took a 1-0 verdict in its opening game of the tournament, then just over a week again it was 2-1 to the Swedes as Group B started out in Gangneung. This time, it was 1-1 in regulation before Ayaka Toko's overtime effort gave Japan the win.
And Toko believes that future Olympic campaigns can bring even more success for the team, talking optimistically of competing for hardware in Beijing 2022. "This time we only got to the preliminary round, but next time we'd like to aim for a medal," she said. "Our main goal was to play good defensively and I think we did that well, but we need to score more goals. It's hard to have a balance of both, but we'll try to do better next time."
Her decisive moment came after three minutes of the extras. Captain Chiho Osawa circled around the back of the Swedish net and laid the puck deep for Toko to unleash a slapshot that found its way into the back of the net after beating Sara Grahn on the blocker side. Cue delight for Japan, claiming its first ever Olympic hockey victory over Sweden - men or women - at the sixth attempt. But there was further disappointment for Sweden, which has now suffered three straight defeats here in Gangneung.
Pernilla Winberg, at her fourth Olympics, summed up the mood among the Swedish players and talked about what might be needed to bring about improvements in the future.
"This is never fun. We didn't do our job out there," she said. "We didn't score on our chances. It's hard to win games when you're up and down so much.
"We need more money into our program and focus on developing girls. It's hard to say what's gone wrong, but Canada and the U.S. centralize all year and we work all day and train at night. It makes a difference."
Japan believed it had taken the lead late in the first period after Haruna Yoneyama’s rush ended with Osawa firing home a wrist shot from the deep slot. But Moeko Fujimoto’s efforts to screen Swedish netminder Grahn sparked a coach’s challenge from the Damkronorna bench, and the video review chalked off the play due to goalie interference. For Swedish coach Leif Boork, this was a better outcome than his attempt to challenge a Finnish goal in yesterday’s quarter-final; on that occasion, the Swedes failed to persuade the officials of their case.
Any lingering sense of injustice among the Japanese was quickly channelled into scoring a legitimate goal, and early in the second period Japan went ahead for real. Shiori Koike was the scorer, the defender bagging her second goal of the Games with an impressive finish on the backhand after she pivoted onto Yoneyama’s feed.
Sweden, looking leggy after its loss in the quarter-final just 24 hours earlier, began to rally. Emilia Ramboldt saw a fiery shot flash narrowly wide before Lisa Johansson tied it up with a short-handed goal. The Swedish forward spotted a piece of poor control as Japan looked to build an attack, and was onto the loose puck in a flash, leaving Ayaka Toko trailing in her wake. But there was still plenty of work to do as she set off down the ice to send Nana Fujimoto the wrong way and tie the game.
The third period could not break the stalemate. Japan had its better chances early and late: Hanae Kubo shot narrowly wide from a good position after some slick build-up play, and Osawa shot straight at Grahn with barely 30 seconds to play. In between, Sweden had opportunities to win it when Maja Nylen Persson’s slap shot was pushed away by Fujimoto and Johanna Olofsson’s deflected effort almost deceived the goalie.
Japan now advances to face Switzerland in the play-off for 5th/6th place. For defender Akane Hosoyamada, that represents real progress. "We were hoping to go to the medal round, but for our Japanese national team, this is a great result," she said. "To finish 5th or 6th is very satisfying. For upcoming generations, this will give our program more respect."
Sweden meets Korea in a battle to avoid finishing eighth and last in this year’s tournament.