IIHF

Hockey qualification kicks off in Japan

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While we wait for the NHL pros to end their differences with management and lace up their skates on American soil once again, hockey fans everywhere will be glad to know that Olympic qualification kicked off in Japan Friday.

The Japanese squad started their journey off well, winning 2-0 against Romania as they seek their first Olympic berth since automatically qualifying as the host nation during the 1998 Nagano Games.

Yutaka Fukufuji, who played four games for the Los Angeles Kings during the 2006-07 campaign, stopped 22 shots in the shutout while teammate Tetsuya Saito scored in the first period and Takuro Yamashita added an insurance goal in the third.

South Korea earned a 5-4 OT victory against Great Britain in the second game after falling behind by two goals three different times. Won Jung Kim scored a hat trick to keep the South Koreans in the game, Geunho Kim scored the equalizer to force overtime, and goaltender Sungje Park shut out the Brits in a shootout.

“We expected to win, we didn’t think we were the underdogs,” Won Jung Kim told an IIHF reporter after the game. “We are a fast team and our coach told us that we could outskate them.”

The winner of this weekend’s four-team round robin will go on to the final stage of qualification in February, where teams from around the world will vie for the final three spots in the 12-team Olympic tournament.

The other nine teams will earn automatic bids for Sochi based on the International Ice Hockey Federation world rankings. The United States team currently sits safely in seventh place.

Lara Gut wins Lake Louise super-G, closes gap on Mikaela Shiffrin

SOELDEN, AUSTRIA - OCTOBER 22: Lara Gut of Switzerland takes 1st place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Giant Slalom on October 22, 2016 in Soelden, Austria (Photo by Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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The early portion of the Alpine skiing season indicates the battle for the women’s World Cup overall title could be very close between Lara Gut and Mikaela Shiffrin.

Gut stated her case again Sunday, winning a super-G in Lake Louise, Alberta, picking up 100 points and drawing to within 28 of the leader Shiffrin in the standings. They are through seven of a scheduled 37 races.

Shiffrin, so strong this fall, took a step back with a 34th-place finish under falling snow Sunday, the race delayed by 75 minutes due to the weather.

LAKE LOUISE: Full results | Race replay

Shiffrin had placed 18th and 13th in her first World Cup downhills the previous two days. She was 15th in the Lake Louise super-G one year ago, her World Cup debut in that discipline.

Shiffrin, the youngest Olympic slalom champion and a World Cup giant slalom winner, is turning into an overall title threat for two reasons.

One, her addition of speed disciplines to pick up extra points (she added 33 points this weekend). Two, the absence of past overall champions Lindsey Vonn and Anna Veith due to injuries and Tina Maze due to a retirement (after a home finale).

Shiffrin’s best World Cup overall standings finish before this season was fourth two seasons ago.

Gut, though, is a proven winner in downhill, super-G and giant slalom and arguably hitting her prime at age 25. Shiffrin is 21 and not entirely comfortable in speed races.

Shiffrin can look forward to the upcoming World Cup schedule. Nine of the next 12 races are technical events — her specialties — giving her a great chance to hold the World Cup overall standings lead into mid-January.

The women’s World Cup moves to Sestriere, Italy, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom. Shiffrin has won her last 10 World Cup slaloms, two shy of the record streak for any women’s event.

MORE: Ted Ligety seconds behind in continued return from torn ACL

Ted Ligety seconds behind as he continues return from ACL tear

VAL D'ISERE, FRANCE - DECEMBER 04: Ted Ligety of USA competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on December 4, 2016 in Val d'Isere, France (Photo by Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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If Ted Ligety is to become the world’s best giant slalom skier again, it’s going to take some time.

On Sunday, the Olympic and world champion placed 11th in his second GS since tearing his right ACL in January.

The 32-year-old Ligety was 2.63 seconds behind first-time French winner Mathieu Faivre after two runs in Val d’Isère, France.

“I didn’t feel that comfortable to push that hard and it showed in the time,” Ligety told media in Val d’Isère, according to the U.S. Ski Team.

Ligety was ninth following the first run, 1.37 seconds back of Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who fell to second, .49 behind Faivre, after the last run.

Ligety failed to build on his season-opening fifth place in Soelden, Austria, from Oct. 23, his first race in nine months. He said after Saturday’s finish that he feels like he’s skiing better than he was in October.

“I just need to be able to put it together and have the confidence to push hard,” Ligety said.

He has gone five straight World Cup giant slaloms without a podium, his longest drought since the 2006-07 season.

The U.S. put five men in the top 30 overall, with Ligety joined by Tommy Ford (14th), Tim Jitloff (18th), Ryan Cochran-Siegle (22nd) and David Chodounsky (27th).

VAL D’ISERE: Full results | Run 2 replay

NBCSN will air coverage of the Val d’Isère giant slalom on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET, also streaming here, with six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller as an analyst.

The men’s World Cup stays in Val d’Isère for a giant slalom and slalom next weekend.

VIDEO: High-speed crash in Lake Louise women’s downhill