Sara Hjalmarsson’s early third-period goal propelled Team Sweden to a 2-1 victory over Team Japan in the first women’s game of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics played at the Kwandong Hockey Centre.
Sweden’s forward, Erika Grahm forced a turnover in the offensive zone and delivered a backhanded pass to Hjalmarsson to break a 1-1 tie at 1:53 of the final frame.
The game was a mismatch on paper: Sweden has finished fourth in back-to-back Olympics and earned silver in 2006, while Japan has yet to record an Olympic victory in the team's history. But the underdogs put up a tough fight thanks to a strong night from their goaltender.
Nana Fujimoto made 25 saves for Japan, including an impressive breakaway save late in the first period. Sweden’s forward Rebecca Stenberg skated in all alone after a beautiful outlet pass from her defender, but could not light the lamp. A scramble ensued in front of the net after the breakaway attempt, but Japan safely cleared the puck out of danger.
Rui Ukita erased a one-goal deficit for Japan when she scored her first of the tournament at 16:52 of the middle frame. The smiling Japanese celebrated by circling up and bowing to one another.
"We knew Japan are a good team and we expected this kind of game against them," Swedish head coach Leif Boork said. "We were lucky to get that early goal in the first period and the second goal early in the third period."
Fanny Rask opened the scoring 2:21 into the contest when she lifted a shot over the shoulder of Fujimoto.
Japan outshot Sweden 30-26, but the Swedish netminder, Sara Grahn, was a steadying force for the blue and yellow.
"She made some big saves and that gives a defense self-confidence," Boork said. "It's important that she showed right away that she has that caliber. It's important that she shows the team and herself that she can play a big role in this tournament."
After its opening victory, Sweden now looks forward to its second preliminary-round game against Switzerland, who beat the Swedes for the bronze medal in 2014. Meanwhile, Japan will face the unified Korean team next with a chance to record its maiden victory at the Winter Games, and despite the opening loss. Japanese head coach Takeshi Yamanaka was encouraged by his squad's effort.
"Offensively, we did really well. But the problem was that we could not control the tempo of the game in defense, and that's why we lost," Yamanaka said. "If we play like this I think it can still happen that we earn that first-ever win."
Oliver Jung contributed to this report.
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