S. Korean men’s hockey left searching for consistency after gold bid fails

SAPPORO, Japan-- South Korea's bid for its first Asian Winter Games gold medal in men's hockey failed before it could even get off the ground, as it lost the opening game of the round robin tournament to Kazakhstan 4-0 Wednesday.

South Korea submitted lackluster efforts on both ends in that game. But just two days later, South Korea turned in an impressive game to defeat Japan 4-1.

Even forward Michael Swift, who netted the eventual winner, admitted it was like watching two different teams.

And herein lies the task for South Korea: With less than a year to go until the Winter Olympics in South Korea's PyeongChang, the team needs to compete with more consistency.

Swift said he felt the difference between those two games could be found in the players' mental approach. Since most of the Japanese players are playing professionally in Asia League Ice Hockey against the South Koreans, the national team members knew what to expect from them.

On the other hand, Kazakhstan was a different story. Though South Korea has faced Kazakhstan before, this was a different team because most of the veterans had stayed put in Kazakhstan for their pro clubs' playoff games.

"I think the guys got a little intimidated when we played against the Kazakhstan team that we didn't know," Swift said after Friday's win. "It's a good learning curve for the guys. Now that we've played Kazakhstan, the next time we play them, mentally, the guys will know how to play."

Defenseman Eric Regan sang a similar tune, saying South Korea has tended to play a little timid against unfamiliar opponents.

"When we play bigger European teams we've never played before, we have to realize we're good hockey players, and we can skate with the best players in the world," Regan said. "If we can skate and play hard, we're going to have a chance to win hockey games."

Some South Korean players talked about how they were fired up to take on Japan, given the two countries' sporting rivalry rooted deep in history.

In the Olympic tournament, though, South Korea can't afford to be selective about how hard they're going to compete against certain opponents. South Korea is grouped with Canada, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, along with the Czech Republic and Switzerland. South Korea will be facing new opponents too, whether or not the NHL stars will be allowed to compete. And playing intimidated simply won't cut it.

Jim Paek, former NHL defenseman now coaching South Korea, attributed the lack of consistency to inexperience.

"We've got to learn from (our mistakes), and we have to start on time," he said after South Korea defeated China 10-0 in Sunday's finale. "We have to be prepared and play 60 minutes from the drop of the puck on every game. We can't take a night off, win or lose."

Still Paek said he liked the way his players bounced back after the opening loss.

"We showed good character coming back from the disappointment," he said. "It's too bad it happened that way, but we responded well coming back against Japan and China. We've got to keep playing the right way and keep working hard, and doing the things we've learned."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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