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Joint Korean hockey team shows signs of life in loss to Japan

By
Yoo Jee-ho, Yonhap News Agency
Park Yoonjung (23) of the joint North-South Korean hockey team falls in front of Japan's goal mouth as her teammate Randi Heesoo Griffin scores during their women's ice hockey preliminary round Group B game against Japan at the Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung, South Korea, on Wednesday. Photo by Andrew Wong/UPI
Park Yoonjung (23) of the joint North-South Korean hockey team falls in front of Japan's goal mouth as her teammate Randi Heesoo Griffin scores during their women's ice hockey preliminary round Group B game against Japan at the Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung, South Korea, on Wednesday. Photo by Andrew Wong/UPI | License Photo

GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Another game, another loss for the joint Korean women's hockey team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

But in falling to Japan 4-1 to close out Group B play on Wednesday at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Korea showed some signs of life. And that's encouraging because the team still has two more games left to play.

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Randi Heesoo Griffin scored the first-ever goal by Korea in Olympic play in the second period, by far the best 20 minutes Korea has played in this tournament. Though Korea only put 13 shots on backup Japanese goalie Akane Konishi, the number of shots doesn't tell the whole story of how the once-feeble attack showed some fire.

Before Wednesday, Korea hadn't been able to buy a goal, while losing to Switzerland and Sweden by the identical scores of 8-0. And after taking four largely harmless shots in the opening period while giving up two goals, Korea appeared headed toward another scoreless defeat.

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It all changed when Griffin's weak shot off a rolling puck somehow found its way into the net after deflecting off of Konishi's right pad.

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It was just the shot in the arm that this team desperately needed, as the bench and the stands -- packed with partisan fans from both South and North Korea -- erupted in deafening cheers.

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Buoyed by the unlikely goal that cut the deficit in half, Korea turned into a different team -- from one that had trouble simply controlling the puck to one that played with controlled abandon on both ends. The forwards created several odd-man rushes, including a two-on-one chance soon after Griffin's goal that tested Konishi's mettle, and the rearguards held their ground and refused to be pushed around deep in their own zone.

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In net, goalie Shin So-jung rose to the occasion and kept her team in the game with a series of huge saves. Perhaps none was bigger than her stop on Hanae Kubo, on a two-on-one breakaway early in the third, which denied the Japanese forward her second goal of the game.

Shiori Koike's power play goal for Japan midway through the third period was deflating, as it came when Korea was fighting hard for an equalizer. Griffin was serving an illegal hit penalty when Koike found the back of the net.

Several Korean players were seen crying after the tough loss, as they had never come so close to beating Japan before. South Korea had lost its first seven meetings against Japan by a combined score of 106-1.

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"Once we scored that goal and got to within one, the game could have gone either way," said South Korean forward Han Soo-jin. "After the second period, we talked about how we should forget about the differences in our rankings and try to create a miracle."

Miracle on Ice, circa 2018, wasn't to be.

Shin, the unsung hero of the game, said she felt the gap between the two countries has narrowed significantly.

In 2007, at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, Japan pounded South Korea 29-0. But exactly 10 years later, South Korea held its own at the Sapporo Asian Winter Games and lost 3-0.

"Maybe in 10 years, it'll be our turn to win," Shin said. "We'll try to get some confidence back from this one and get ready for our next game. We have two matches left" in the classification round.

Griffin, 29, who was born to a Korean mother and an American father in North Carolina, said she was filled with a mixture of sadness and pride after the game.

"I am very, very proud of the way our team played today's game. This was the best game we've played against Japan," she said at a post-game press conference. "But obviously, I am disappointed with the outcome of the game. There's definitely sadness that we lost. During second period, we had a lot of momentum and I felt we had a chance to win."

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Griffin, a former Harvard star, said she was inspired to take up hockey in earnest after watching the U.S. women's team win gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. She's now hoping to inspire Korean girls who might otherwise go into speed skating or figure skating to start playing hockey.

"I think the opportunity to come here and play in South Korea, which right now isn't a big hockey country, is largely about trying to grow this game here," she said. "I love coaching, I am looking forward to getting back into that when my playing career finally finishes for real."

Given the Olympic tournament structure, Korea could have a rematch against Japan in the classification round. Both nations have been knocked out of medal contention, and will each face a losing team from the quarterfinals. Should both Korea and Japan lose that first classification match, then they will square off with seventh place at stake.

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