By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News
Two games into the women’s hockey world championships on home ice this week, it’s been quite evident that South Korea has become an infinitely better team since its last international competition less than two months ago.
South Korea has defeated Slovenia 5-1 and then Britain 3-1 to open the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championship Division II Group A in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. With two consecutive wins and three matches remaining, the host nation has positioned itself to capture the tournament and earn a promotion to Division I Group B next year.
Coached by former U.S. collegiate star Sarah Murray, South Korea finished fourth at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, two months ago. It was the country’s best showing ever at the continental event.
And South Korea showed up at the world championships even better than before. It bodes well for a young squad preparing for an Olympic debut in the same city of Gangneung next year. The world No. 23 may not win a game against Sweden, Switzerland and Japan, all top-10 countries, but South Korea may also avoid embarrassment of losing by double figures, which used to be a regular occurrence not that long ago.
Murray, daughter of the former NHL head coach Andy Murray, attributed the success so far here to improved conditioning. The national team hired a new strengthening coach to push the players more, after their fitness level emerged as an issue during the Asian Games.
With five games in seven days during the world championships, conditioning is at a premium.
“We definitely cranked up the players’ conditioning,” Murray said Sunday. “Our new strengthening coach has been doing a really great job of pushing the players.”
The speed has always been the strength of the team, and now the players are able to compete at a fast pace for a longer stretch of time.
That clearly helped the offense against Slovenia, as South Korea fired on all cylinders and outshot the helpless opponent 78-12. With newfound strength, South Koreans are now able to get more zip behind their shots and passes.
And the added strength helped the players withstand some early pressure against physical Britain on Monday. With bigger players in its lineup, Britain applied a strong forechecking and controlled the neutral zone from the opening face-off.
Instead of running out of gas against that sort of pressure, the South Koreans took what the Brits gave them and then responded with two goals late in the first period.
At the center of the team’s progress has been forward Kim Hee-won, a 15-year-old phenom, who has scored a goal in each of the first two games. One of eight teenagers on the 22-player squad, Kim has gone from a wild player with raw talent to a precocious attacker who plays with controlled abandon.
Kim’s confidence has been palpable so far at the tournament. She has been firing shots from all over the ice — a tournament-best 14 shots — and she has demonstrated some nifty moves to dance through multiple players to create chances for herself and teammates.
Kim, at 170 centimeters tall with a booming shot, plays the right point on power plays, and has made smart decisions when helping out on defense with her positioning and stick work. She’s also hard to knock off the puck, as attested by her brilliant wraparound goal late in the third period against Britain, when she shed a defenseman behind the net and made a difficult shot look shockingly easy.
Kim said extra off-ice work — involving plenty of running and cycling — has done wonders to her overall game.
“I feel exhausted just thinking about our training regimen,” Kim said with a smile Monday. “But all that hard work is paying off now. It’s given me confidence that I can go up against bigger players and win those battles.”
Kim spent the Asian Winter Games on the second line with Han Soo-jin as the center. But with the usual first-line forward Caroline Park out with a shoulder injury this week, Han was promoted to the top line, and third-line center Jo Su-sie joined Kim and Choi Ji-yeon on the second line.
That unit went berserk against Slovenia, combining for three goals and two assists with 18 shots fired. They were a combined plus-six for the game.
Murray then made the Jo-Kim-Choi line her top offensive unit against Britain. Kim delivered a goal, while Jo picked up an assist. In those two games, Jo has won 27 of 33 face-offs to lead the team.
Kim, who hadn’t even been old enough to play internationally until Sapporo, said playing at the Asian Games has helped her prepare for the worlds mentally.
“I wasn’t so nervous before this competition because I’d already played in a big tournament,” she said. “It puts some pressure on me to play on the first line, but I just want to reward my coach’s faith.”
Murray, for her part, said Kim can only get better from here.
“She has so much skill and so much potential,” the coach said. “Now she has newfound confidence and hunger. She wants to shoot the puck. She wants to score. I am really proud of how she’s stepped up at this tournament so far.”
Murray added that Kim, as a young player, should try to keep her focus on the right place at all times. Kim may do well to emulate Park Jong-ah, one of the team’s best scorers who quietly leads by example.
Park leads the team with three points on two goals and an assist. The second of those two goals was the result of a tremendous individual effort against Britain; she picked up the loose puck in the neutral zone, sped down the right wing and then cut to the middle past defenders before firing one to the top shelf.
Park shrugged off her highlight-reel goal as “a lucky break,” saying she only had the opportunity because her teammates did all the work.
Park said the team is clearly playing with more cohesion than ever before.
“We all knew our system at the Asian Games, too, but we hadn’t yet made full adjustments at the time,” she said. “We had some holes here and there, and we plugged them before the world championships. As individuals, we all tried to minimize our mistakes, and it’s worked out well so far.”
South Korea finished second at last year’s Division II Group A event, losing out to Poland in a tiebreaker despite posting an identical record of four wins and a loss.
Park said the goal all along has been to win it all this time and do so convincingly.
“We’ve been training hard to win this tournament with a perfect record,” she said. “It won’t be easy, but I think we can do it.”