After scoring a big come-from-behind win over Germany in its 2014 Olympic opener, the Russian women's Olympic hockey team secured its spot in the quarterfinals by surviving a 2-1 decision over a game Japanese team.
Japan entered the contest as a significant underdog; however, the Japanese squad surprised plenty of observers by losing just 1-0 to Sweden to open the tournament. Japan's effort was once again superb on Tuesday, but its inexperience in big-game situations proved costly.
Russia generated plenty of quality scoring opportunities throughout the early part of the first period, but Japanese goalie Nana Fujimoto was up to the task as her strong play carried over from the Sweden game.
After knocking on the door for the first 11 minutes and change, Russia finally found the back of the net to take a 1-0 lead, as NBC Olympic Hockey on Twitter pointed out:
The goal was an unassisted marker by 33-year-old Tatyana Burina, but it was very nearly negated later in the period by Japan. It appeared as though Japan had potentially scored amid chaos in the Russian crease, but controversy ensued, as pointed out by Brian Stensaas of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Controversy in Russia v. Japan women's hockey!! (Yes, I'm watching...)— Brian Stensaas (@stensation) February 11, 2014
Despite the fact that the puck seemed to trickle under Russian goalie Anna Prugova and clearly cross the goal line, it was waved off. Replay officials attempted to get the attention of the on-ice officials, but they proceeded to drop the puck without reviewing the play.
Further replays showed that it should have been ruled a goal, so Russia dodged a major bullet heading into the second period of play.
Even though Japan got a raw deal, it continued to battle in the second period. If it wasn't already abundantly clear that Russia was in a different class after one period of play, it certainly was during the second as Russia out-shot Japan 21-4.
As has been the case for many of the lower-level teams in the women's tournament thus far, though, excellent goaltending kept Japan alive. Fujimoto turned away all 21 Russian shots in the second stanza, including a number of golden opportunities on a late power play. That allowed Japan to remain just one goal down:
The buzz surrounding Russian women's hockey was obvious, especially considering the fact that legendary Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak was in the crowd, according to Kenny Albert, who announced the game for MSNBC:
Exciting game in Sochi. Russia leads Japan before home crowd 1-0 heading to third period. Hockey royalty Vladislav Tretiak in attendance.— Kenny Albert (@KennyAlbert) February 11, 2014
Tretiak couldn't have been happy with what transpired less than a minute into the third period as a seeing-eye shot from Japan's Ayaka Toko found its way through a maze of bodies and beat the shaky Prugova to knot the game at 1-1.
The goal was Japan's first in Olympic play in exactly 16 years as it hadn't qualified for the women's tournament since 1998 in Nagano.
After Japan's equalizer, the pressure clearly started to get to Russia, and it led to three penalties in succession. Yekaterina Pashkevich had a chance to stem the tide on a shorthanded breakaway midway through the final frame, but the 41-year-old veteran was turned away by a confident Fujimoto.
Russia avoided disaster on the ensuing Japanese power play and came away with yet another shorthanded breakaway. This time, Russia made no mistake. Alexandra Vafina buried a confident wrister to make it 2-1:
Russia was able to hang on for dear life in the closing minutes, and Japan's frantic comeback attempt fell agonizingly short. In the end, the disallowed Japanese goal that was never reviewed loomed large, although there is no telling how the game would have been impacted had it counted.
How will the Russian women's hockey team fare in Sochi?
One thing that is certain, though, is that Russian women's hockey is finally starting to catch on.
Women's hockey simply hasn't been on the radar in Russia over the years, which is surprising considering how huge men's hockey is. According to Jerry Sullivan of The Buffalo News, Russia has a mere 562 registered female hockey players, which is an incredibly low number in comparison to the size of the country.
Russia still has a long way to go before it can legitimately compete with the likes of Team USA and Canada, but it is on the right track. The crowd support in Sochi has been impressive, and management is in place to make sure that women's hockey is a success in Russia.
Former NHL star Alexei Yashin is the team's general manager, and he is committed to building the program in his home country, per Ed Willes of Canada.com:
I saw an opportunity after I retired, especially with these Olympics coming up, to help the team. They've been struggling with a lot of financial things, with equipment, just struggling with attention. I try to provide some kind of feeling, not only for me personally but for the Russian people and for government that it's important to build the team.
Now that Russia has reached the quarterfinals, it can potentially earn its first Olympic medal in women's hockey. Russia's final group game against Sweden will be hugely important since the winner figures to face Switzerland rather than Finland in the quarters if things go as expected.
Russia would have a legitimate chance to beat Switzerland, and while it would almost certainly get housed by the United States or Canada, a bronze medal would be within reach.
A narrow win over Japan makes it abundantly clear that Russia is nowhere near its desired level quite yet, but the progress is obvious, and it may very well lead to a medal opportunity thanks in large part to home-ice advantage in Sochi.
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