SAPPORO - Japan and Ukraine posted comprehensive 3-0 victories on the first day of play in the Men's Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 Group J on Thursday night at the Tsukisamu Arena in Sapporo. The hosts beat Croatia in the evening, while Ukraine bested Romania in the afternoon. Croatia vs. Japan 0-3 (0-0, 0-1, 0-2)
Yuto Osawa's two goals powered Japan to the win in a game that was close until late in the second period. Despite a huge difference in shots on goal (43 for Japan, 8 for Croatia), the Croats hung in to make it a close contest for most of the night.
The opening period was a scoreless affair in which Japan dominated possession of the puck. Croatia had few chances on offence as it spent much of the period defending.
Croatia faced multiple challenges on this night, as in addition to playing the tournament hosts, they did not arrive in the city until hours before the match due to inclement weather.
Yuto Osawa put Japan up 1-0 with 5:10 remaining the in the second with a shot from the edge of the crease. A penalty had been called, but as play continued, Croatia seemed to lose concentration momentarily and Japan capitalized. Ryo Hashiba assisted on the goal.
There was an air of inevitability about Japan's first goal, as Croatia goalie Mate Tomljenovic had made several fine saves before finally allowing Osawa's score.
Croatia seemed to find their footing in the third, when the played well for the first 10 minutes but could not come up with the equalizer.
Osawa's second goal came from the slot with 4:21 left in the third with an assist by Kohei Mitamura.
Go Tanaka clinched the triumph for Japan with a goal from the slot just 20 seconds later.
Japan killed off five power plays in the win.
Japan coach Greg Thomson was relieved after the victory.
“This was a very important game today,” Thomson said. “We knew the situation with Croatia having to stay in Tokyo last night and travel today. They didn't quit.”
Thomson was impressed by the efforts of the Croats.
“They made the first period tough for us,” Thomson stated. “We had a lot of scoring chances in the second but only got one goal. Croatia made the third period tough but we got two more goals. Our goal was to use our speed and create scoring chances.”
Osawa said he worked well with his teammates during the victory.
“I'm very happy. I was surprised with the two goals,” commented Osawa. “It was hard work. I had good communication with my linemates.”
Japan goalie Yutaka Fukufuji didn't see much action, but was content with the scoreline.
“It was a tough game, but a shutout is a good result,” Fukufuji said. “We were able to dominate for 60 minutes.”
Croatia coach Danijel Kolombo believes his team accomplished what it set out to.
“After such a long trip to get here, we wanted to make a tough game for Japan and we did,” noted Kolombo. “We knew the Japanese were better skaters. We came with an amateur team but showed we could still compete.”
Tomljenovic praised his team's result under the circumstances.
“This is an amazing game for us,” Tomljenovic said. “We came only two hours before the game and played great. We didn't want to get embarrassed. We have 12 players playing in the national team for the first time.”
The winner of this tournament will advance to the Final Olympic Qualification round that will be played 1-4 September 2016 in three groups.
The Japan men have participated at Olympics eight times, most recently on home ice in Nagano 1998. Ukraine vs. Romania 3-0 (0-0, 2-0, 1-0)
Second-period goals by Vladyslav Luhovy and Andri Mikhnov sparked Ukraine to a 3-0 victory over Romania. Ukraine dominated the contest with their power and defence, but Romania put up a valiant fight to keep it tight most of the way. Ukraine outshot Romania 48-27 in the win.
The first period was scoreless despite both teams having several power-play opportunities. Ukraine outshot Romania 12-3. Goalies Eduard Zakharchenko (Ukraine) and Attila Adorjan (Romania) each came up with fine saves to maintain the stalemate.
Ukraine began to take the initiative in the second period and broke the deadlock on Luhovy's goal with 10:28 left in the period on a shot from point-blank range. Sergi Kuzmik was credited with an assist on the play.
Adorjan stopped a penalty shot by Viktor Zakharov with 9:51 left after a tripping penalty on Istvan Nagy to keep it 1-0. Ukraine, ranked 21st in the world, kept heavy pressure on Adorjan throughout the second.
Ukraine tallied again when Mikhnov scored from close in with 1:41 remaining. Artem Bondaryev got the assist.
Romania, ranked 28th, was on the defensive side for the majority of the second period and had few chances to score.
Artem Gnidenko put the game away for Ukraine with a shot from the point with 5:25 left in the third.
Ukraine coach Olexander Savytski was satisfied with the victory;
“A win is a win. Some moments we should have been better,” stated Savytski. “Our goalie played well. There were a few moments when he should have played better. Romania kept the game close.”
Zakharchenko, who played well in the crease, credited his players for the shutout win.
“It is thanks to my teammates that they did not score,” Zakharchenko commented. “My team blocked a lot of shots and Romania did not have long possessions because of our defence.”
Romania coach Kjell Lindqvist was philosophical after the defeat.
“Ukraine is a good hockey team. They are big and heavy,” stated Lindqvist. “We had chances. I'm satisfied because we tried hard. If we could have scored in the third it might have been different.”
Lindqvist cited the play of Adorjan as a positive.
“Our goalie played solid. He is only 20 years old,” noted Lindqvist. “He stopped the penalty shot and many others.”
Romania forward Zsolt Molnar knew his team would be in for a challenge this day.
“I thought it would be hard,” said Molnar. “Ukraine played good. We tried our best and fought until the end.”
Ukraine played at the Olympics in 2002 but hasn't qualified for a top-level event since 2007. Click here for scores and stats.