Japan's players celebrate a goal in their victory over Lithuania at the 2017 IIHF World Championships Div IB in Belfast. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.
Japan wins again, sets up gold medal clash
Another powerful display from Japan's offence brought a 6-2 win over Lithuania to remain undefeated in four games in World Championship Division IB.
Japan remains on course for a winner-takes-all showdown against GB on Saturday night after subduing a spirited Lithuania in Belfast.
Once again, tournament leading scorer Daisuke Obara was the key man, picking up a goal and two assists in his team’s fourth straight win as he moved to 10 (5+5) points for the championship. But Lithuania’s impressive youngster Emilijus Krakauskas also had a good afternoon with a goal and an assist of his own in a losing cause.
Obara's line-mate, Yushiroh Hirano, weighed in with a couple of assists - but warned that Japan's work is far from done here. "Winning these four games is good, of course," he said after game. "But it doesn't really mean anything unless we finish the job tomorrow and win promotion."
In its previous games, Japan was often quick to get among the goals and this one was no exception. With two minutes played, Obara played the puck out of the corner, Hirano spun for a shot and Makuru Furuhashi put away the rebound at the second attempt. That was all that separated the teams after 20 minutes, though: Lithuania’s rugged defence worked hard to deny a pacey Japanese offence the opportunity to move at speed down the ice, while its forwards posed a few questions of their own at the other end.
That kind of open play continued into the early exchanges of the middle stanza. Lithuania barely scraped the puck off Artur Pavliukov’s goal line before heading to the Japanese net and tying the game. Mark Kaleinikovas battled away on the forecheck, wrestling back possession in the corner and feeding Krakauskas for a one-timer from the deep slot to tie the scores.
The goal brought a cheer from the Lithuanian fans and a scattering of GB followers hoping for a slip-up from Japan in the race for promotion. But Obara soon had the Japanese back in front with a goal that resembled Krakauskas’ effort: a one-timer from between the hash marks after Hirano kept the play alive on the point. A second Lithuanian goal – Krakautas to Arturas Katulis on the point, Kaleinikovas with the vital touch in front of Yutaka Fukufuji – tied the scores once again, but Japan found a way to subdue its opponent at last.
Lithuania barely mustered a shot on Fukufuji’s net for the remainder of the session, while Japan got back in front thanks to Kenta Takagi’s power play goal in the 33rd minute. Yosuke Haga’s meaty shot just squeezed through Pavliukov’s defences and Takagi was on hand to reach behind the goalie and tap it into the net.
"Our speed and our skating are the real strengths of our team," Hirano added. "If we can keep doing that like we have been, we will keep getting the results that we need."
Then two goals in the 48th minute put the game beyond Lithuania’s reach. Pavliukov was left uncharacteristically exposed after Shogo Yatsuki’s shot cannoned into his pads and Yushi Nakayashiki had three chances to shoot for goal. Pavliukov came up with two big reaction saves before his luck ran out and Japan went 4-2 up. Still frustrated, Lithuania got caught out in centre ice a few seconds later as Takagi blasted past his marker and went in on the net to bag his second and Japan’s fifth. Captain Go Tanaka added one more with five to play, converting Sho Sato’s wraparound play with a finish at the back door. That enabled Japan to give back-up goalie Takuto Onoda his first taste of the action here in the closing minutes of another impressive win.
For Lithuania, Saturday offers a chance to win bronze against Croatia – potentially a third consecutive medal for the Baltic country. For Japan, the prize could be gold – and promotion to Division IA.