Month: February 2017 (page 2 of 6)

Philippines Win First Official Game, Thailand in Good Standing

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By Steven Ellis –
Eurohockey.com

Division I All But Decided

Thanks to a 3-2 overtime victory over the pre-tournament favourites from Chinese Taipei, Thailand just need to tackle Singapore on Saturday to secure the tournament title for Division I at the Asian Winter Games.

Chinese Taipei took the early lead thanks to a goal seven minutes in by To Weng, a lead that would stand for almost the entire game. When teammate Chang-Hsing Yang made it 2-0 with 11 minutes left in the contest, it really looked like Taipei was in a great position to take the tournament lead heading into the final game later in the week.

But Swedish-born and trained defenseman Ken Kindborn was the man of the hour for Thailand, scoring the first goal and the eventual deciding marker before a minute was even complete in the extra frame. Kindborn is second in team scoring and fourth overall with eight points, and with one game to go, he’s been a major player for the team currently in the catbird seat.

Thailand just needs to beat Singapore on Saturday to grab the gold medal, which shouldn’t be a tough task. After four games, Singapore has scored just four goals and have allowed 42 to sit last place in Division I.

Third Place Heating Up

The battle for third also played a big role on Thursday, with the United Arab Emirates (11-2 over Singapore) and Mongolia (8-6 versus Hong Kong) both taking victories. The wins put them tied for third place with six points each, but the Emirates hold the tiebreaker, if needed, thanks to a 6-3 victory earlier in the tournament.

Mongolia will be in tough on Saturday, having to face Chinese Taipei, who of course still have a chance to win the gold medal. The Emirates will have it easier due to Hong Kong’s weaker place in the standings, but a win could boost them up to second if Mongolia loses as well.

History in Division II

A massive 14-2 victory over Qatar helped make hockey history as the Philippines managed to secure their first official victory.

Lenard Lancero posted three goals in the victory, with all three of the markers coming in the third period. Paul Sanchez was red hot as well, putting up seven points, including two goals as the biggest performer for Philippines. Adbdulla Mohammed scored both goals for Qatar.

The other game on Thursday saw Macau take down Indonesia 6-2 in what was Indonesia’s best game of the two they’ve played. Kim Hei Mok led the way with three points for Macau, while Ka Yu Jonay Leung scored twice for his nation. Indonesia’s goals came from Roy Nugraha and Ronald Chandra.

Japan overwhelms Thailand, advances to women’s ice hockey final

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By
Japan Times

Japan hammered Thailand 37-0 to make it four wins out of four in the women’s ice hockey competition at the Asian Winter Games on Thursday,  Japan has scored a total of 92 Goals in the 4 games.

Japan, which recently qualified for next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics, faces China for the gold medal in its final match on Saturday.

No. 1 goalie, top forward come through in shootout victory for Korea

By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News

South Korean women’s hockey goalie Shin So-jung was so nervous during the shootout against China at the Asian Winter Games Thursday that she couldn’t stand to watch her teammates take shots.

Instead, she tried to stay focused on the puck fired by the Chinese shooters, trying to make one save at a time.

And the approach worked just fine, as South Korea’s 10th shooter, Park Jong-ah, scored the winner past Wang Yuqing for the 3-2 victory at Tsukisamu Gymnasium. It was South Korea’s first win over China in eight meetings, and the first seven losses had been by the combined score of 90-2.

Though Park scored the winner, Shin was easily South Korea’s best player. She made 27 saves in three periods of regulation play and a five-minute overtime period. After the second Chinese shooter, Kong Minghui, scored in the shootout, Shin went on to deny the next eight shooters.

“I think I’ve been in a shootout at every international competition, and I can’t really watch my teammates take shots,” Shin said. “It would affect my own play. So I turn my back on them and try to keep my focus on each and every shot on my end.”

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Shin, who enjoyed a stellar collegiate career in Canada and signed with the New York Riveters in the National Women’s Hockey League, has been through lean years for South Korea. And she’s that much more appreciative of the progress the team has made.

Prior to the Sapporo event, South Korea had lost all 15 games at the Asian Winter Games by a cumulative score of 242-4. Here, South Korea beat Thailand 20-0, battled Japan before losing 3-0, and then fell to Kazakhstan 1-0. The win Thursday marked the first time South Korea scored more than one goal against China.

“We’ve really come a long way and grown so much,” she said. “We’d lost to China so badly before, and we were determined to prove ourselves against them.”

   Shin said recovering from the losses to Japan and Kazakhstan, which came on consecutive days, was particularly hard. Shin said the players had given so much to play against Japan, the prohibitive tournament favorite, that they had nothing left in their tank against Kazakhstan.

“We just didn’t play our game against Kazakhstan,” she said. “But we regrouped trying to show our potential before the Olympics (in South Korea’s PyeongChang next year). We kept telling ourselves we were great players no matter what people say, and that we wanted to play our hearts out.”

   South Korea had to beat China by three goals for a shot at a medal, but Park Jong-ah, who also scored in regulation, said the players still managed to find motivation in overtime and then shootout.

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“We were down on ourselves after losing to Kazakhstan because we felt we could’ve won that game,” she said. “And we told each other we had to beat China to gain something from this competition. And rather than worry so much about strategies, we wanted to enjoy ourselves.”

   As for the victory, Park said, “I can’t describe it. We could’ve won the game earlier, and we made it hard on ourselves. It’s an incredible feeling.”

From Asian to Olympic Games

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By Jack  Gallagher – IIHF.com

Countdown begins for Korean women’s team

Japan – The Korean women’s hockey team will face a special challenge next year when they take the ice as the home team at the PyeongChang Olympics. While qualifying for the games as the host nation has its benefits, it also comes with expectations.

This is not lost on the players, who know that they have a high honour in playing in the marquee event in their native country.

Korea coach Sarah Murray said her team values the opportunity it has been given.

I think after watching the Olympic Qualification tournament in Tomakomai (Japan) they realized how hard these other teams have to work to be in the Olympics, stated Murray after Korea’s 1-0 loss to Kazakhstan on Tuesday at the Asian Winter Games. “We have been told for four years, ‘Oh well you guys just get to go.’ It was almost heart-breaking watching Germany and Japan in the last game and knowing that one of those teams wasn’t going and they had to wait four more years.”

Korea did not play in this month’s qualifier, but had exhibition games against Germany and Austria in Japan to prepare for the tournament in Sapporo.

I think the girls felt it in their stomach almost, how lucky we really are to be going to the Games, commented Murray. “They always knew it was special, but watching those two teams battle it out, they really appreciate it now.”

Murray, now in her third year as coach is based full-time in Korea, has seen her team make significant progress during her tenure.

I think we have grown a lot, she said. “In my first year we did a lot of very basic skills, like the technical, tactical, how do you make a pass. Teaching passing and how do you pass it hard. This last year we have been really focusing on systems and playing together as a team. We did basic stuff at the start and now we are trying to fine tune it a little bit.”

Murray says her players take their work very seriously.

Our girls play hockey as their job. We’re an 11-month team.

Murray, who hails from Brandon, Manitoba, says she feels as Korean as her players.

Last summer, I was watching the Summer Olympics and I called my Mom and said, We won gold in judo!

My mother said, ‘Canada won a gold in judo?’ and I said, ‘No, Korea won gold in judo.’ It’s funny, I feel very Korean even though I’m very Canadian.

The Korean team does have a distinctly Canadian feel to it.

Captain Han Soojin, who has been on the national team since 2009, went to high school in Vancouver for three years. She recognizes the duty that comes along with being the host nation in the Olympics.

It’s a big honour to be held in my country, Korea, and as a hockey player. I am very proud to be an Olympic player, said Han. “Our team has to be ready for it in order to achieve something.”

Han noted that there is some anxiety with the anticipation of what lies ahead, but doesn’t see it as a negative.

The team feels pressure, but good pressure, the 29-year-old said. “It is really good to play in our home country. The team is nervous, but like a positive nervous.”

Caroline Park was born in Toronto to Korean parents and began playing the sport at eight. She has dual citizenship in Canada and Korea.

The forward played college hockey at Princeton and is also medical student in New York training to be in orthopaedics.

Despite not growing up in Korea, Park understands what next year’s Olympics mean to her teammates.

It’s obviously very exciting. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Park stated. “I think the girls are really looking forward to it. It’s a chance to play in front of their families, so I think it’s great.”

The 27-year-old Park took a leave of absence from medical school and hooked up with the team at a training camp in Minnesota.

We will have the World Championship [Division II Group A] in April in Korea, so I will stay with the team through then and then go back to school, Park said.

Park’s story is very interesting and shows how dreams can become a reality.

The Korean federation contacted me after I graduated from Princeton, she recalled. “What’s funny was that one night a few years before that, I was watching hockey on TV and there was a little snippet on the Korean team. My dad said, ‘Wouldn’t that be great if you played for them.’ ”

Not long after that the process began and she has now been on the national team for five years.

Someone from the office reached out to me and asked if I would like to try out for the team. That was back in 2012 or 2013.

Park is not completely fluent in Korean, but communicates well with her teammates.

I can understand everything. Speaking is a little rough. I can speak enough to get by, but it is broken Korean, she commented. “I think understanding Korean really helps in terms of being able to blend in with the team and understand what’s going on. The team has been very welcoming ever since I first flew out to Korea. They are a really great group of nice girls.”

Park says she wants to continue being associated with the sport even after the Olympics.

I don’t want to give up hockey, she said. “The team was joking around and saying I should come back and be the team doctor.”

Goalie Shin Sojung, who plays for the New York Riveters in the National Women’s Hockey League, is relishing the chance to compete at home in the 2018 Winter Games.

I’m very excited about PyeongChang because I always had a dream to go play in the Olympics since I started to play hockey at seven, said Shin, who attended St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

The 27-year-old Shin is already a 15-year veteran with the national team, having joined the squad when she was just 12. She admits there is pressure, but is encouraged by what the squad has accomplished in the past few weeks.

We feel a little bit of pressure as the home team next year, Shin stated. “We have played Germany, Austria, and Japan, which will be very similar to the teams that come to PyeongChang. We have confidence after these games. We can play with the high-level teams even though we are ranked 23rd. We are so excited to play in the Olympics.”

Shin hopes the incremental improvement of the team will continue for the next 12 months.

We are getting better day-by-day, week-by-week, she said. “I think we are more excited than nervous. I hope we will be better in another year. We hope to have good results here to let people in Korea know about women’s hockey. We want to show people in Korea what we can do in the Olympics.”

Shutouts Begin Top Division Action at Asian Winter Games

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By Steven Ellis –
Eurohockey.com

Japan Pummels China on Home Ice

Japan’s hopes of winning the Asian Winter Games on home ice got off to a tremendous start thanks to an easy 14-0 win over China on the first day of competition.

11 different players combined for 14 goals, but it was Makuru Furuhashi who would lead the charge with three goals on the night. It was a huge moment for the 23-year-old, who was making his Japanese men’s national team debut. Oji Eagles scoring star Shuhei Kuji was on the top of his game as well, potting two goals, including the first on relief netminder Zehao Sun.

Former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji didn’t have a tough night, stopping all nine shots that were sent his way. Japan sent 59 shots towards China’s net, with just two beating Shengrong Xia in the first seven minutes before Sun finished off the game.

Kazakhstan Starts Off Strong

Fresh off of a silver medal at the recent Universiade on home ice, Kazakhstan has started off the Asian Winter Games off in style with a 4-0 victory over South Korea.

The game didn’t see a single goal until the 34th minute of the contest when 32-year-old forward Maxim Volkov scored his first national team goal. Nikita Mikhailis then capitalized on his team’s momentum just a minute later to make it 2-0, adding to his impressive year that saw him post two goals and seven points at the Universiade earlier in the month. Alikhan Asetov and Konstantin Savenkov would add goals in the third period to give Kazakhstan the eventual 4-0 victory.

Former Colorado Avalanche prospect Vitali Kolesnik was strong in the contest for Kazakhstan, stopping all 29 shots sent his way for the shutout. At the other end, former Boston Bruin and former top goaltender of the Asian League Matthew Dalton had a strong first half before a defensive collapse resulted in four goals against.

Korea is still working towards building a strong team for the 2018 Olympics, their first chance to play against the world’s greatest hockey nations.

Offensive onslaught: Japan women’s hockey squad sets Asian Games record with 46-0 rout of Hong Kong

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By Japan Times

A drained South Korea fell 1-0 to Kazakhstan to suffer its second straight tough loss in the Asian Winter Games women’s ice hockey tournament Tuesday.

In the evening’s final affair, Japan beat Hong Kong 46-0, an Asian Games record for most goals scored in a single game. China set the previous mark in 2003 with 30 against South Korea.

Smile Japan, which booked a spot in the Pyeongchang Games, hammered a team whose starting lineup included a 15-year-old, a 39-year-old and a 42-year-old.

It took Ami Nakamura just 33 seconds to score her team’s first goal and the rout was on.

“We try to skate and execute regardless of the level of our opponent,” Japan head coach Takeshi Yamakawa said. “I liked the Hong Kong players’ spirit. Even after they conceded a goal, they skated hard back to their bench and kept cheering on their teammates.”

The women will have Wednesday off, when the four-team men’s top division takes the ice for their opening games.

Earlier, the South Koreans squandered five power-play opportunities in an afternoon match, after an exhausting 3-0 loss to Japan late on Monday night.

“It was a difficult game because of all the penalties, but we were prepared,” Kazakhstan head coach Alexandr Maltsev said.

Azhar Khamimuldinova scored the game’s only goal less than two minutes into the final period of a contest in which South Korea’s speed was seldom on display.

“Yesterday was a super emotional game for the girls and they were both physically drained and mentally and emotionally drained,” South Korea coach Sarah Murray said. “It was hard after the late night game. We were eating dinner at 10:30 and we had to be at the rink at 1 pm.

“You don’t want to say you gave the game away, but we didn’t show up ready. We have a tendency as a team to not keep an even, consistent emotional level. We are either really high or really low and we have to figure out a way to have a balance.

“We have to use this feeling, and everyone’s going to be down and mad and we just have to make sure we don’t get this feeling again.”

It was the first win for the Kazakhs. The three-time defending Asian Games champions had fallen 6-0 to host Japan in their opener and 8-3 to China on Monday.

Earlier, China rolled to its third straight win, 15-0 over Thailand, which fell to 1-2. The Chinese scored seven first-period goals — including three in a 35-second span.

Eleven different Chinese players scored, with Fang Xin scoring twice in the third period to complete her hat trick.

From a goon show to the big show – Vityaz reborn

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By Andy Potts – KHL.ru

For many, the big story in the Western Conference this season hasn’t revolved around the battle at the top of the table between CSKA and SKA. Instead it’s been the journey of Vityaz, perennial strugglers, into the playoff places.

Vityaz, one of the founders of the KHL, had never made it into post-season before. In recent seasons, it had got relatively close, remaining in contention until the new year before fading in the final stages. But for many hockey fans, the team’s biggest claim to fame – or notoriety – was its part in a bench-clearing brawl that forced the abandonment of a game against Avangard after setting a new record for PIMs. A cavalcade of hard-hitting players – ‘enforcers’, if you’re thinking positively; ‘goons’ if you’re less enamored of hockey fights – passed through the Moscow Region, and their antics often overshadowed the role that the club played in the development of young players such as Artemy Panarin, now a major player in the NHL and at international level.

So, what made this season a success for Vityaz?

The most change was the arrival of new head coach Valery Belov. A long-time colleague of Zinetula Bilyaletdinov at Ak Bars, there’s little in Russian hockey that Belov hasn’t seen or done – and that includes play-off hockey at Vityaz in the Superleague era. Bringing him back to a club where he has a deep connection, and giving him the freedom to work as head coach in his own right, was a key step.

Belov’s presence had a positive effect on the players he inherited, and none more so than Maxim Afinogenov. Now 37, the forward suddenly hit top form, completing the regular season with 47 (20+27) points, his best ever return since leaving the NHL and joining SKA in 2010. Remaining injury-free, and with his legendary pace seemingly undimmed by the passing years, Afinogenov’s 23-year-old team-mate Miro Aaltonen described him as “a great example for the whole team” in an interview on KHL.ru earlier in the season.

Aaltonen’s arrival was another masterstroke. No relation to the more famous Juhamatti Aaltonen, once of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jokerit, and best – if not most fondly remembered – for helping Finland defeat Russia in the quarter-final in Sochi, Miro arrived from Karpat and established himself as an effective center for Vityaz’s first line, scoring 44 points along the way. The club’s oft-overlooked ability to identity and nurture emerging talent delivered once again.

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The other key summer signing was very different. Alexei Kopeikin, 33, came from Sibir, where he had captained the team as it improved steadily to become a serious contender in the Eastern Conference. Deemed surplus to requirements in Novosibirsk, he was released … and set about proving his doubters wrong by scoring 20 goals in a season for the first time in his career on his way to a 51-point haul.

Then there was the goaltending. Harri Sateri, in his second season at the club, once again showed his qualities while understudy Igor Saprykin was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the season came to a close. An injury to Sateri handed Saprykin the starting role from January 7 until February 16, and the 25-year-old rose to the challenge impressively. Vityaz won eight of the 11 games that Sateri missed; Saprykin finished the season with numbers comparable to his colleague.

As Vityaz heads into the unchartered territory of KHL playoff action, it faces SKA as a massive outsider. But head coach Belov insists that his team can cause an upset.
“Every player needs to bring his A game,” Belov said after Saturday’s game against Admiral. “If we do that, we will win games … and more than one.”

West Conference

1-CSKA v 8-Jokerit
2-SKA v 7-Vityaz
3-Dynamo v 6-Torpedo
4-Lokomotiv v 5-Minsk

Enter the Dragon – Kunlun brings playoff hockey to China!

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By Andy Potts – KHL.ru

This year’s Eastern Conference playoffs will make history – for the KHL, for our newest team and for the world’s most populous nation. Kunlun Red Star, KHL newcomer, marked its first season in action by achieving a playoff place and will bring a piece of the big show to China for the first time ever.

It’s a remarkable success for a club that, this time last year, existed as little more than a business plan. For head coach Vladimir Yurzinov, the first challenge was to assemble a competitive roster in a matter of weeks during pre-season. Then there was the difficulty of juggling a huge travel itinerary in a league where Red Star’s closest rival was Admiral Vladivostok, 1,300km distant. And, if that wasn’t enough, the team needed to build a fanbase in a country where hockey is far from the public eye: a task made even harder by the need to relocate from its Beijing base to a second arena in Shanghai for most of the fall.

We ended up with a close-knit group that wants to play and win for each other.

But the team delivered on all fronts. A multi-national roster brought together players from Russia, Finland, Sweden, North America, Slovakia and France, plus a seasoning of Chinese prospects. That was enough to secure eighth place in the Eastern Conference to set up a playoff series against defending champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk while steadily building up a fanbase in Beijing and beyond.

For Alexei Ponikarovsky, one of the most experienced men on the roster, one of the key elements in the team’s success was the atmosphere in the locker room. Despite a team being flung together from scratch, he felt that the players quickly gelled.

“Like any successful team, it’s about that combination of having some pretty good players and having a good atmosphere in the locker room,” he said. “We’re a friendly team. Even though we have players from all over the world and everyone speaks different languages, we all understand English, so we ended up with a close-knit group that wants to play and win for each other.”

Ponikarovsky, who was part of SKA’s Gagarin Cup-winning team of 2015, brought bags of KHL know-how. But it was a KHL rookie, Chad Rau, who led the scoring charts for the team with 40 (20+20) points. He credits his individual success to a strong supporting cast.

“I’ve been able to play with good players,” said the 29-year-old American forward. “There’s a lot of depth on our team and I’ve been lucky to play on a line with some good guys. The team as a whole has been strong too, and once we started winning games that helped us a lot.”

Now attention turns to post-season, and despite a daunting assignment against a powerful Metallurg team, but nobody in the club is content to merely make up the numbers in the playoffs.

Now we have a big chance to prove that we are a great hockey club, for now and for the future

Goalie Tomi Karhunen, another KHL newcomer, has enjoyed confounding pre-season expectations and is eager for more of the same.

“Before we started there weren’t many people who expected much from us, but now we have a big chance to prove that we are a great hockey club, for now and for the future,” said the 27-year-old. “It’s been good so far, but I’m hoping that our best moments are still to come.”

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Heading into next week’s series, Kunlun faces some new problems. The team finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak and might have missed out altogether had it not been for Sibir conceding a late equalizer in its final game on Saturday. To make matters worse, French forward Damien Fleury picked up a serious injury at Dynamo Moscow and will not feature again in the current campaign. Head coach Yurzinov admitted that the end of the season – and especially the disruption caused by the international break earlier this month – was far from ideal but felt that his team had played well in the circumstances.

And despite that losing streak, he is preparing to give the defending champion a run for its money. “We have to be ready to face a tough opponent,” he said after Saturday’s 1-2 loss at Dynamo. “But I think we have everything in place to put up a real fight against Magnitogorsk.”

Kunlun’s debut playoff campaign begins in Magnitogorsk on Wednesday. Beijing’s first taste of playoff action follows in game three of the best-of-seven series on February 26.

East Conference Playoffs

1-Magnitka v 8-Kunlun
2-Avangard v 7-Admiral
3-Ak Bars v 6-Salavat Yulaev
4-Traktor v 5-Barys

Iranian ice hockey team disqualified from Sapporo 2017 over ineligible players

Iran’s ice hockey team have been disqualified from the 2017 Asian Winter Games competition here but will still be allowed to play unofficial matches.

The country were scheduled to feature in the third division of the tournament, which has been spilt into two pools.

But insidethegames has been told a number of Iranian players were deemed ineligible to compete in the competition by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA).

The players concerned were suspended from competing in the event, with the issue believed to have centred around those concerned having not lived in Iran for three years, despite having some heritage to the country.

There were also claims some players may have represented other nations, rending them unable to compete for Iran.

A match between Iran and Macau did go ahead yesterday, the latter emerging 7-1 winners,

The win, though, has not counted towards the group standings.

The OCA have confirmed Iran’s matches at the Games are still going ahead, but they will effectively be treated as friendlies, with the results not included in the official results of the Games.

“On February 18, the Organising Committee of the Winter Asian Games announced that Iran’s non-participation in ice hockey men was decided,” organisers announced.

“Thirteen out of 22 athletes did not meet eligibility for participation such as nationality determined by the OCA.

“The Macao game that was planned on the same day was held as an exchange game, but it will be Macau’s victory.”

Shahryar Sean Amini, one of Iran’s player, reacted to the disqualification on social media, claiming he found the situation “ridiculous”. 

“Our suspended players are not allowed to go to the locker room and either practicing with us,” he posted.

insidethegames understands Kyrgyzstan avoided a similar fate, with their team having eventually provided sufficient documentation to compete.

A member of Thailand’s delegation for the Games is also believed to have been declared ineligible to participate.

In the ice hockey competition, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Bahrain, Philippines and an Independent Olympic Athletes team representing Kuwait, who remain suspended by the International Olympic Committee, are in the first pool.

Malaysia, Macau, Turkmenistan, Indonesia and Iran were set to compete in the second.

Japan grinds past South Korea at Asian Winter Games

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By Japan Times

Japan outlasted South Korea 3-0 to remain unbeaten in the women’s ice hockey at the Asian Winter Games on Monday.

Hanae Kubo opened the scoring for Pyeongchang-bound Smile Japan on a slip up by South Korean goalie Shin So-jung in the second minute. Naho Terashima’s short-handed goal early in the final period gave the hosts some breathing room, and Shoko Ono put the game on ice with seven minutes remaining.

The win moved Japan to 2-0 in the tournament.

With South Korea keeping up with Japan through two periods, the game was played at high speed, with both teams contesting each puck and exploiting their opponents’ mistakes.

After facing just three shots against defending gold medalist Kazakhstan in Japan’s opener, goalie Nana Fujimoto earned her keep against the opportunistic South Koreans.

The scoring started early when Shin failed to control a puck behind the net, and it rebounded to Kubo, who fired home before Shin could close the door.

Although the South Koreans were never really outskated, the Japanese passing meant they had the bulk of attacking zone possession.

But a bad shooting day by Japan and a string of great saves by Shin kept the game in doubt until the third period of a solid, electrifying game.

Mexico! Are you ready for some … hockey?

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By Eric Gomez – ESPN.com

In a sports bar tucked between the Roma Sur and Narvarte neighborhoods on a recent weekday night, a dry erase board lists the top three events available on its multiple screens.

Save for a very small minority, every patron is there to watch the main event, a World Cup qualifier between Mexico and Panama. Also listed is an NBA contest, with the Chicago Bulls battling the Portland Trail Blazers. And the third event on the board is the NHL clash between the Washington Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It’s a small, perhaps even throwaway gesture, but the mere acknowledgment of hockey in Mexico is still notable at this point, as the sport slowly continues to build in popularity and relevance for a country that has provided leagues and sports north of the border with an apt opportunity for expansion in recent years.

In the past 12 months, Mexico City has hosted Major League Baseball, auto racing’s Formula 1, UFC’s mixed martial arts, the NFL’s Monday Night Football, two regular-season NBA games, even wrestling’s WWE. For the NHL, a league also looking to expand its brand beyond its usual sphere of influence, Mexico could provide an interesting destination and a chance to gauge future outings beyond North America in an effort to popularize the game.

The hosting boom for the country and its capital could have it poised to land hockey sooner rather than later. Aside from newer facilities like the Arena Ciudad de Mexico, (the $300 million, 22,300-seater hosted the WWE last December and the NBA in January), the Mexican Hockey Federation says there is a commitment to winter sports venues that could play a role in landing a pro game.

“We have the IceDome (a public venue built in Mexico City specifically to foment winter sports), we have a rink in San Jerónimo and there’s talk of another hockey rink being built soon,” said Mexican Hockey Federation president, Joaquin de la Garma, an architect by trade who fell in love with the sport decades ago. De la Garma is bullish on the progress his country has made of late, and dreams of watching his nation one day field a hockey team at the Winter Olympics.

If the time seems too perfect to attract greater interest in the sport, this would be a good time to mention that Auston Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs center and the NHL’s No. 1 draft pick in 2016, has Mexican heritage by way of his mother. Though his heritage and draft position were covered lightly by news outlets south of the border, the Mexican-American forward doesn’t get too much play in the media despite a strong rookie season and an All-Star berth.

De la Garma makes it clear that growth for the game in Mexico should come internally, from a grassroots level. Matthews and Claudia Téllez, who at 32 became the first Mexican national to sign for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, offer unique opportunities to create marketable stars. Other up-and-comers like Jorge Perez, who became the first Mexican-born player at the Junior A level in Canada for Rayside-Balfour, offer a promising future.

“He’s going to reach great heights,” De la Garma said about Perez.

Indeed Perez, a lanky 19-year-old forward that already captains his national team, could very well become the country’s first breakout star. Though experts within the Mexican hockey fold are reluctant to say whether he’ll reach the highest level, his success in Canada has certainly validated the program’s growth in recent years.

“I don’t think much about the future, I take it day by day, season by season,” Perez said about someday playing in the NHL, though he agrees that it would be massive for the sport to take off in Mexico. “It would be an amazing piece of news, if it’s not me, then someone else isn’t far behind.”

In Canada, Perez has acted as at times as a promoter for his countrymen, encouraging scouts to give his Mexican teammates a look. “There’s definitely talent here, and players want to make the jump, too,” he explained.

As for Téllez, she offers a face for the country’s surprising growth on the women’s side. The national team, which has only existed for four years, has been making serious strides in the world of hockey for a country attempting its first solid steps at making noise at the highest levels.

“A crazy dream some of us believed in,” De la Garma recalled.

At the Olympic Preliminary Qualifiers in Kazakhstan last year, Team Mexico pulled off an impressive run, though the women fell short in the end on the road to the 2018 Winter Games. Téllez’s success has been spurred on by an active women’s league in the country’s capital, and by making hockey a full-time activity for as many as possible. At the IceDome, children as young as 4 take classes from instructors who double as national team players.

“Now you see girls 20 and up, out on the ice at the rinks,” Téllez told Excelle Sports in July. “And little girls, three and four years old. If there [is] going to be growth, there needed to be interest.”

The federation president notes that Mexico will have future opportunities for glory in the near future, including events that will hopefully be hosted on home soil. It is his hope that the women, not the men, will make the Olympics sooner rather than later. Recent results seem to confirm that hope.

“We’re focusing greatly on [the women’s team]. I think I won’t be alive when the men make it to the tournament,” he jokes.

Other initiatives to grow the game include amateur leagues organized mainly in the Mexican capital and other metropolitan areas with winter sports facilities, a cable TV deal to show nightly pro games and open tryouts to attempt and attract new talents into the national team fold. Those are good initiatives but might not be enough. Hockey is still ignored by national media and most highlight shows on TV.

“We need more exposure, we need people to watch it,” Perez said.

But the white whale for hockey in Mexico remains to attract the world’s top league to the country and attempt to accelerate growth in the short term.

“We need to bring the NHL here for people to truly experience what hockey is at the highest level,” De la Garma said.

That objective still seems far off.

“We are not aware of any such contact being made,” said NHL deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, via email.

De la Garma told a story about contacting the league in 2001 to play an exhibition game. According to the Federation, talks were promising enough for them to book an arena in advance, anticipating an eventual deal. Then, Sept. 11 happened, and the NHL was less than willing to hold a game at an arena located within Mexico City’s World Trade Center complex, De la Garma said.

More than a decade and a half later, there is still hope the league will play a regular-season game in Mexico, the first time it would do so in a Latin American nation. In 2006, the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers played a preseason game in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Back at the sports bar, the hostess is asked whether patrons come to watch hockey. The answer is evident, as the bar emptied following Mexico’s victory against Panama.

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