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2018 Olympic preview: Meet Group B

A primer on Team Switzerland, Team Sweden, Team Japan and the Unified Korean Team.

The Asian Winter Games 2017 - Day 3 Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

The defending bronze medalists, a team with a chip on its shoulder, a possible dark horse and the host team with more than hockey on its mind. The teams of Group B might all be gone by the semi-finals but that’s not always how it works. If you’re looking for the underdog feel-good stories, this is where you’ll find them.

Switzerland

2014 Olympics: Bronze, 11 players returning
World Ranking: Sixth
2017 World Championships: Seventh
Game to watch: Switzerland vs Sweden, Tues Feb 13 10:10 pm EST, NBCSN
Players to watch: Lara Stalder, Alina Müller, Florence Schelling, Janine Alder, Christine Meier
Rookies: Nicole Gass, Stefanie Wetli

Despite winning bronze in Sochi, Switzerland hasn’t had the best time of things the past few years. Thanks to Korea’s automatic qualification, they had to re-qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics, and they placed seventh at the 2017 Worlds ahead of only the Czechs. Defense and discipline problems have been their most obvious weakness.

They still have some standout talent. Florence Schelling is playing in her fourth Olympics, and has the most World Championship game appearances all-time by a goaltender. They’ve also got a very solid backup in St. Cloud State’s Janine Alder. Lara Stalder and Alina Müller are a hell of a one-two punch on Switzerland’s top line (Stalder especially—her recent scoring numbers in international competition are eye-popping, and she’s currently tied with Michelle Karvinen of Finland for lead in SDHL scoring). Veteran presence Christine Meier provides a solid scoring threat on defense. Despite their weaknesses, Switzerland has a solid path through Group B and into the quarterfinals; if anyone stops them, it’ll be Japan.

Sweden

2014 Olympics: Fourth place, 9 players returning
World Ranking: Fifth
2017 World Championships: Sixth
Game to watch: Switzerland vs Sweden, Tues Feb 13 10:10 pm EST, NBCSN
Players to watch: Sara Grahn, Fanny Rask, Maja Nylén-Persson, Pernilla Winberg
Rookies: Rebecca Stenberg

The story for Sweden over the last two years or so has been their coach, Leif Boork. Several members of the team went to the Swedish Ice Hockey Association to request his removal in 2016 and were denied. What followed was one of their worst international seasons on record, culminating in a sixth place finish at the 2017 World Championships. It was announced a few months ago that the Olympics will be Boork’s final tournament as head coach. The question is, can Sweden succeed despite him?

Expect Sara Grahn, who’s been with the team for over a decade now, to get most of the starts. Maja Nylén-Persson is their 17-year-old wunderkind at defence, one of a few players in this tournament who also attended the U18 World Championships earlier this season. It’s impossible not to watch Fanny Rask when she’s on the ice and Pernilla Winberg is the last remaining member of the 2006 Mirakel team that won a silver medal in Torino. She’s still no slouch at scoring, either.

Since the announcement of Boork’s imminent departure, the Damkronorna have a record of 5 and 2, with all seven games against top level teams and both losses coming against Russia. They have actually managed to beat everyone in Group B and both Finland and Russia in Group A at least once in this calendar year. Their 0 and 4 record at 4 Nations Cup in Tampa was a definite strike against them, but as the only member of Group B to attend that tournament, the odds are high that they’ll at least make the quarter finals.

Japan

2014 Olympics: Eighth, 15 players returning
World Ranking: Ninth
2017 World Championships: First place, Division IA
Game to watch: Japan vs Switzerland, Sat Feb 10, 2:40 am EST, TSN
Players to watch: Hanae Kubo, Nana Fujimoto, Sena Suzuki, Akane Hosoyamada, Aina Takeuchi, Miho Shishiuchi, Chiho Osawa
Rookies: None

Smile Japan is back! This is their third Olympics, second in a row, and they’ve qualified for both of the last two. Since the Sochi Olympics, where they didn’t win a game, Japan’s program has kept steadily developing. Three of their defenders (Akane Hosoyamada, Aina Takeuchi, and Sena Suzuki) spent time in the CWHL, Miho Shishiuchi spent two seasons with HPK in the Finnish women’s league, and Nana Fujimoto played for the New York Riveters in the NWHL’s inaugural season. On forward, keep an eye on team captain Chiho Osawa, as well as Hanae Kubo, the 35-year-old whose history with Team Japan stretches back to 1999. Interestingly, Kubo is also a NWHL veteran—the first NWHL. She spent the 2005-06 season with the Oakville Ice and scored 34 points in 36 games. Kubo is still one of Japan’s top scorers, illustrated by her five-goal, six-point performance in Olympic qualifiers to send Team Japan to Pyeongchang.

Watching Japan play Germany and Austria during Olympic qualifications, it was obvious that this is an improved team—the question is if they’re improved enough to move out of Group B and into the quarterfinals. It’s worth noting that in January, Japan swept Germany and the Czech Republic (the two IIHF top-level teams who will not be at the Olympics) in a four-game tournament in Tokyo. They even beat Russia 2-1 in the second of a pair of games in Nagano. Even taking jetlag on behalf of the European teams into consideration, it’s thoroughly possible that Japan could beat Switzerland or Sweden (their best bet is probably Switzerland) and find their way into the quarterfinal round. With a little luck, this is your dark horse for bronze.

Unified Korean Team

2014 Olympics: Did not qualify
World Ranking: Twenty second (South), Twenty fifth (North)
2017 World Championships: First place, Division IIA (South), Fourth place, Division IIA (North)
Game to watch: Korea vs Japan, Wed Feb 14 6:40 am EST, NBCSN
Players to watch: Shin So Jung, Han Do Hee, Park Jong Ah
Rookies: Genevieve Kim Knowles, Lee Jin Gyu

Before the whole mess with the unified team, there was some hope that the steadily improving South Korean team might win a game, with a little luck. Now there are twelve North Koreans reducing ice time for South Korean players and disrupting years of work. National reunification is a lovely goal, but the women’s hockey team has been made a political football and it’s a shame.

In a warm-up game this past weekend, the Koreans lost 3-1 to Sweden, which is more or less what you should expect throughout the tournament. Shin So Jung and Han Do Hee in net will back up a decent Korean defensive unit and keep the score low on a lopsided shot total. Any goals scored will likely be by Park Jong Ah, the team’s 21-year-old captain and best player (goalies excepted).

It will be interesting to see how well the North Koreans (the team must ice at least three North Koreans in any game) play in comparison to their southern counterparts. Jong Su Hyon, Ryo Song Hu, Kim Un Hyang, and defender Hwang Chung Gum played in the game against Sweden. Coach Sarah Murray has said it is her intention to play only the best of the 12 North Koreans, so these four may be the ones we see all tournament.

The Koreans will likely put up a fight that belies their 22nd and 25th world rankings, but they are outclassed in this tournament and are the favourites for eighth place.

Group B round robin schedule

DATE TIME TEAMS TV
DATE TIME TEAMS TV
Sat 10 Feb 2:40 AM EST JPN  vs  SWE TSN
Sat 10 Feb 7:10 AM EST SUI  vs  COR USA Network
Mon 12 Feb 2:40 AM EST SUI  vs  JPN NBCSN, CBC
Mon 12 Feb 7:10 AM EST SWE  vs  COR NBCSN
Tues 13 Feb 10:10 PM EST SWE  vs  SUI NBCSN
Wed 14 Feb 2:40 AM EST COR  vs  JPN NBCSN

How to watch and tournament format | Group A