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By James Armstrong IIHF.com

Japan faces Germany, Austria and France in the qualifying round from 9 to 12 February in Tomakomai, a hockey hotbed on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Japan surprised many when it upset Denmark 5-0 four years ago to qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The team, dubbed “Smile Japan”, will be counting on the 27-year-old Fujimoto to lead them to another Olympic berth.

Despite her diminutive size, the 5-foot-4 (164 cm) Fujimoto has a track record of coming up big in important games.

Fujimoto was named Best Goaltender of the tournament at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships after leading Japan to their first win over Sweden in a 4-3 shootout victory.

She turned in a steady performance in Sochi where Japan lost 1-0 to Sweden and 2-1 to Russia before a 4-0 loss to Germany in the preliminary round.

Fujimoto says her teammates hope to build on the experience of Sochi in the upcoming qualifiers.

“We really need to play to our strengths,” Fujimoto said. “The other teams in our group are bigger and play a more physical game so we need to rely on our speed and conditioning.”

Eight nations will play in the women’s tournament at the 2018 PyeongChang Games.

The United States, Canada, Finland, Russia and Sweden have already secured places along with Korea, which earns a spot as the host nation. One team from Group C featuring Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Norway will also qualify.

Fujimoto’s father, Kenji, played hockey when he was growing up in Hokkaido and encouraged his daughter to take up the sport. Fujimoto took up goaltending when she was in elementary school because she wasn’t quite up to speed as a regular position player.

Japan, which will be bidding for its third Olympic berth following Nagano and Sochi, has been making steady progress and is currently seventh in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking.

“(At Sochi) we realized the gap that exists between us and some of the top nations,” Fujimoto said. “But it was a valuable experience. We hope to play on the world stage again in the Olympics to show how far Japanese hockey has come.”

Fujimoto, who looks up to Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados, played for the New York Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League and was selected as a starter for the 2016 All-Star game.

Up front, Japan will be counting on veteran Hanae Kubo, who is the team’s most experienced player. Kubo made her national team debut in 1996 and is Japan’s all-time leader in points with 54.

In preparation for the qualifiers, Japan played a pair of warm-up games against the Calgary Inferno on 28-29 January, winning the first 3-1 before a 4-1 loss in the second game.

“Coming off the two warm-up games, the team is in good condition,” Fujimoto said. “We’re really looking forward to the qualifiers and showing everyone what we can do.”

Germany takes on France in the opening Group D qualifying game on Thursday while Japan faces Austria in the evening game.