A crowd of nearly 500 packed the stands at the ASB Sports Centre to cheer on the Kiwis as New Zealand fought their way to a thrilling 8-8 draw against Japan in their opening match of the three-team Asia-Oceania Qualification tournament on Friday night in Wellington.
Japan and New Zealand each took a point out of the game, which means all three teams in the competition still have a chance to qualify for the 2019 WFC in Canada, depending on the result of tomorrow night´s final game when the hometown heroes take on the Aussies.
After a scoreless first ten minutes of the game largely dominated by Japan, the visitors´ hard work was rewarded with the opening goal from Kazunaga Noda at 10:46, followed by a second four minutes later by Narumi Saruwatari.
With Japan holding a 2-0 lead and continuing to apply pressure, the Kiwis went on the power play at 16:02, and were awarded a penalty shot six seconds into the man advantage. Fifteen-year-old Alec Stewart stepped up to the mark and got the Kiwis on the board with a well-taken forehand shot, giving the home fans something to cheer about. The momentum shifted in favour of New Zealand, with Tim McKibben finding the back of the net less than a minute later to knot the scores up at two each, before Yuichiro Sakazume put Japan back on top 3-2 with less than a minute left in the period.
Narumi Saruwatari scored his second of the game four minutes later to put Japan ahead 4-3, but the lead was short-lived as Caleb Heersping scored unassisted for the Kiwis a minute later, starting a run of three unanswered goals for the home side, with Andreas Ming scoring his second of the game and Alec Stewart adding his second for the Kiwis on a power play, to put the Kiwis ahead 6-4 with seven minutes to play in the second period.
The Japanese pulled one back just 12 seconds later, bringing the score to 6-5, before the two-goal lead was restored on a Japanese own-goal with three minutes to play, and the Kiwis went in to the last period holding a two goal lead at 7-5.
Japan started the third period in full-on attack mode, firing shot after shot at New Zealand goalie Darren Patrick, who was equal to the task, making several outstanding saves and keeping the Kiwis ahead until Haruki Motoyama broke through five minutes in to the period to make the score 7-6. The Japanese evened things up 7-7 on a goal from captain Tsubasa Takahashi with two-and-a half minutes to play.
McKibben sent the home crowd into a frenzy with his second goal of the game 41 seconds later, and the Kiwis looked set to score an historic win before Takahashi scored with less than a minute left in the game to cap of an amazing night of international floorball in Wellington with a memorable 8-8 scoreline.
The Kiwis will go into tomorrow night´s game against Australia knowing that they can play with the best in this part of the world, and will be looking to cap off their hard work with a win to book their ticket to the World Floorball Championship in Halifax.
By Andy Knackstedt
The game was tight between New Zealand and Japan and the crowd got to see 16 goals in total. Photos by Masanori Udagawa.