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2019 IIHF Women’s World Championships preview: Group B

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Group A might have more stars, but Group B will have the more interesting games in Espoo.

Japan v Germany - Women’s Ice Hockey International Friendly
Goalkeeper Nana Fujimoto #1 of Japan blocks a goal attempt by Julia Zorn #8 of Germany 
Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Group B is where you find all the up and comers of women’s hockey. It’s also where a hot goalie and a little luck can launch a team into the spotlight. It happened in 2017, can group B bring us a dark horse darling once again?

Sweden

2018 Olympics: Seventh, 13 players returning
World Ranking: Sixth
2017 World Championships: Sixth
Game to watch: Sweden vs Japan, Tuesday April 9, 5:30 am EDT
Players to watch: Sara Grahn, Emma Nordin, Maja Nylén Persson, Hanna Olsson, Fanny Rask, Pernilla Winberg
Rookies: Julia Åberg, Lina Ljungblom, Sofie Lundin, Lovisa Selander, Mina Waxin

This is the first World Championships of the post-Leif Boork era and while the expectation is that Sweden automatically improved with the switch to head coach Ylva Martinsen, it’s yet to be seen how much of an improvement has been made. With just 13 players returning from the Olympic roster, Sweden has the highest turnover of any team at this tournament. Notably, none of the rookies from Pyeongchang made the team this year. Still, there’s a good core to this team and many of them know Martinsen from her time as head coach of the U18 team.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) senior Lovisa Selander holds the NCAA all-time saves record and went viral this season with an outstanding performance in a loss, but don’t expect to see her in net much if at all. She’s played just one game with the senior team and with veteran Sara Grahn, who elected not to join the team for Four Nations, back in net, Martinsen will probably lean fairly heavily on the more experienced goalie.

The team placed fifth in the EHT Finals, and through the tour the only Group B team they lost to was Germany. If they’re the team they should be, they’ll contend the top of group B. A little luck could see them in the semi-finals but that’s probably a lot to ask.

Japan

2018 Olympics: Sixth
World Ranking: Seventh
World Championships: Promoted to Top division in 2017
Game to watch: Sweden vs Japan, Tuesday April 9, 5:30 am EDT
Players to watch: Nana Fujimoto, Rui Ukita, Chiho Osawa, Akane Hosoyamada, Sena Suzuki, Hanae Kubo
Rookies: Remi Koyama, Mei Miura, Kanami Seki, Akane Shiga, Kaho Suzuki, Hikaru Yamashita, Shiori Yamashita

Japan is coming off their best senior-level tournament performance at Pyeongchang—not only did they beat Korea, but they also beat Sweden in a placement game, and thoroughly hung in with the competition in several close losses. This year, they’re back at IIHF Worlds looking to continue their upward trajectory—will this be the year they break through to winning games, not just looking good while losing them?

The main question for Japan is whether or not they will be able to score. Their defense is tightly organized and includes names like Akane Hosoyamada and Sena Suzuki, and they have one of the best goalies in the game in Nana Fujimoto (who, I feel compelled to point out, beat Sweden with a dislocated shoulder). A name to keep an eye on at forward is Rui Ukita, who scored the OT goal to beat Finland at the Euro Hockey Tour, and impressed me during Team Japan’s appearance at the Summer Showcase in Canada. Of course, Hanae Kubo is back, because I suspect Hanae Kubo will play for Team Japan until someone physically locks her out of the rink (and that’s not going to happen until she loses her scoring touch, which has not happened yet). I’m especially interested to check out their rematch with Sweden; will Japan manage to come out on top during the round robin in this tournament, or has Sweden’s own improvement put them at a different level?

Germany

2018 Olympics: Did not qualify
World Ranking: Eighth
2017 World Championships: Fourth,
Game to watch: Germany vs Japan, Saturday April 6, 11:00 am EDT
Players to watch: Jennifer Harss, Marie Delarbre, Laura Kluge, Nicola Eisenschmid, Kerstin Spielberger
Rookies: Naemi Liel Bär, Jule Flötgen, Celina Haider, Marie-Kristin Schmid

Germany were the surprise of the 2017 tournament. With a career-defining performance from goalie Jennifer Harss and a tight, stubborn defensive game (half the 2017 team were defenders), the Germans battled their way to fourth place for the first time in their history. Unfortunately for them, they lost out to Japan in the qualifying tournament for the Olympics and thus didn’t have an elite-level tournament to play in last year. They’ve also changed coaches, so we’ll see if that helps or hurts them. They’ll certainly look to score more than they did in 2017.

They had mixed results at the EHT, placing second at the October tournament, last at the November tournament, and fourth at the Finals. They beat both Sweden and Switzerland in October, but in competition against other Group B teams they lost twice more to Switzerland, went 0-2 against the Czechs, and lost 4-1 to Japan. as well. Still, with three teams in Group B advancing to the quarterfinals, it would be unwise to count the Germans out.

Czech Republic

2018 Olympics: Did not qualify
World Ranking: Ninth
2017 World Championships: Eighth
Game to watch: Czech Republic vs Germany, Tuesday April 9, 11:00 am EDT
Players to watch: Denisa Křížová, Tereza Vanišová, Michaela Pejzlová, Klára Peslarová
Rookies: Karolína Kosinová, Zuzana Martinů, Martina Mašková, Noemi Neubauerová, Barbora Patočková, Daniela Pejšová, Kateřina Zechovská

The expansion of the World Championships to ten teams must have come as a relief to the Czechs; after a disappointing tournament in 2017, they would have been relegated otherwise. They’ve got skill, some of it very fun, but their main goal this tournament will probably be to avoid their 2017 fate and remain top level for another year.

The Czechs have a few offensive standouts—Tereza Vanišová is a quick, creative player who’s an absolute delight to watch, Michaela Pejzlová spent the year racking up points on one of the most terrifying lines in the NCAA, and Denisa Křížová put up 14 points in 16 games in her rookie season with the NWHL’s Boston Pride. Defense and goaltending are the question marks; assuming they return to Klara Peslarová in net, she would need to turn in solid performances in goal for the Czechs to have a chance of making it out of Group B, which was not the case in 2017.

While the Czechs came in last in the Euro Hockey Tour final, they did beat Germany twice over the course of the tour, so they’re definitely capable of avoiding relegation and more time spent bouncing between top level and Division IA, as has been the pattern over the past several years. More players besides their star forwards will need to show up for that to happen.

France

2018 Olympics: Did not qualify
World Ranking: Tenth
World Championships: Promoted to Top division in 2018
Game to watch: France vs Czech Republic, Friday April 5 9:00 am EDT
Players to watch: Chloé Aurard, Caroline Baldin, Marion Allémoz
Rookies: Alexandra Harrison, Margaux Mameri

France are the newest members of the Top division. Historically, this gives them the best odds to be relegated at the end of the tournament, but France’s rise may well have been the fastest any team has ever made it from Division IB to the Top division. The French team won the Division IB Worlds championship in 2013, qualifying them for promotion. They stayed in Division IA for five tournaments, winning the fifth last year. Twelve of their 23 players were on the team promoted to Divison IA in 2013 and they only have two players on the squad who were not part of 2018’s win. There’s a lot of strength in a team that know each other that well.

Players to watch will be their goalie, Caroline Baldin, who plays in the SDHL, forward Chloé Aurard, who had a stellar first year with Northeastern University in the NCAA, and captain Marion Allémoz, who spent time with the Canadiennes in the CWHL and has been captain of the senior team since 2011. In pre-tournament play, France shut out Germany 2-0 this weekend, which should give them a boost coming in to the round robin.

Predictions

nafio: Group B is so much harder than Group A! For relegation I’m going to say it’ll be Czech vs France and probably France going home. I think Japan could be a surprise fifth place with Sweden sixth (making Switzerland seventh) and Germany eighth.

Annie: Ooh, let’s see. I’m going to pin my hopes on Japan’s good fundamentals translating to on-the-scoreboard success this time, and Sweden giving them a good fight for first in the group. I agree that relegation will probably be the Czechs vs France—Germany might come close, but Jenny Harss is still Jenny Harss, and a hot goalie in a ten-day tournament can do so much.