By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com
Japan capped off a perfect Division I Group B tournament with a victory over Ukraine in the last game. As a result, Japan has earned a promotion to Group A next season. Led by two power-play goals from Yushiroh Hirano, Japan built up a 5-0 lead and then held on to win 5-3 before a largely pro-Ukrainian crowd of 3870.
“I don’t care how we play, just as long as we win this one,” said Hirano, holding the gold first-place trophy. “I appreciate the work of my teammates and the coaching staff too.”
The Ukrainians, who had won three in a row after opening with a 5-4 overtime loss to China, could have finished first with a regulation win and were not badly outplayed in the game, but failed to capitalize on their chances until it was too late. Ukraine outshot Japan 33-29 in the game.
“It was a hard game for us,” said Ukrainian head coach Vadym Shakhraichuk. “I believed until the last second that we could come back but Japan was unbelievable. Only second place this year but maybe next season we can win first place.”
Kento Suzuki opened the scoring just shy of the eight-minute mark. Right off a faceoff, he leaned into a one-timer that hit a Ukrainian player and bounced down off the ice, fooling Bogdan Dyachenko.
The next bad break for Ukraine came late in the first period when Dymitro Nymenko was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for boarding. With 31 seconds left in the period, Hirano struck for the first time, teeing up a slapper from the point that went over Dyachenko’s glove.
Early in the second period, two straight Japanese penalties gave Ukraine plenty of power-play time and 34 seconds of 5-on-3. They moved the puck well but the Japanese penalty-killers were relentless, blocking numberous shots, including one that robbed Danil Trakht of what looked like a sure empty-net goal.
“Every single player sacrificed himself, that’s why we won this game,” said Hirano.
And then two nearly identical goals 21 seconds apart put Japan in firm control. The first was another power-play goal by Hirano and the second was by Kenta Takagi, both lasers over the glove. At that point, Dyachenko was lifted in favour of Eduard Zakharchenko.
Less than a minute later, just past the game’s midpoint, Ukraine appeared to get on the board but Japanese coach Perry Pearn challenged for goaltender interference, which was upheld.
“I looked up and saw the replay on the board and that made me really confident to call it,” said Pearn. “It looked pretty obvious to me, so it was an easy call and we’d been killing penalties pretty well anyway, so we were confident.”
In the first minute of the third period, Ukraine suffered another bad break when Zakharenko charged out of the net to play the puck, but his clearing attempt hit the chest of Japan’s Kosuke Otsu and bounced into the net to make it 5-0.
Cue the Ukrainian comeback attempt.
On the power play with 14:48 to play, Olexi Vorona’s fifth of the tournament finally got Ukraine on the board. Then it was Ukraine’s turn to get a lucky bounce when Yuta Narisawa stopped Vitali Lialka’s shot and played the rebound to teammate Takagi, who inadvertently played the puck into his own net.
Finally, Illia Korenchuk found the top corner with 3:27 to play and it was suddenly, and surprisingly, a two-goal game.
“We opened the door a little bit with the penalty, and they pushed and pushed.” said Pearn. “Ukraine, you gotta give them credit, they played hard till the end.”
Zakharchenko came out of the net for a sixth attacker as the Ukrainians went for it all, but although they furiously attacked the Japanese net, they simply ran out of time.