BERNE – Call them the Little Baltic Country That Could. The Latvians earned their fourth straight victory at this tournament on Saturday, eliminating France from quarter-finals contention with a 7-1 thrashing. Two goals 2:36 apart in the second sealed France's fate.
With the win, Latvia sits at seven points, significantly enhancing its chances of edging out either Switzerland or Sweden for a quarterfinal berth in Group E of the Qualification Round. France has zero points.
Martins Cipulis paced the Latvian attack with two goals, while Aleksandrs Nizivijs added a goal and two assists. Lauris Darzins, Karlis Skrastins, Girts Ankipans and Aleksandrs Jerofejevs also scored for Latvia. Herberts Vasiljevs added three assists, and Martins Karsums had two.
"Another big win," said Skrastins, the Latvian captain. "The first period was tough, but fortunately, we scored the first goal and our goalie made some big saves. It got more relaxed in the third period when we scored a couple of goals."
Luc Tardif tallied the lone goal for France.
Edgars Masalskis won the goaltending duel with Fabrice Lhenry as Latvia outshot France 38-28.
On May 3, Latvia rounds out its Qualification Round slate versus Russia, and France does likewise versus Sweden on May 4.
"Tomorrow is another big game for us," said Skrastins. "It doesn't matter who we're playing--we'll try our best. We'll see later today how important the game will be for the standings."
If winning is contagious, then the Latvians are one sick hockey team right now. And they're loving it. From the outset, it was clear the maroon-and-white squad wanted to carry the play offensively, while the French would focus on defending and trying to keep up.
Latvia jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 7:29 when Guntis Galvins cleverly fired the puck off the end boards and it bounced out to Nizivijs on the open side of the net, where he made no mistake.
When the French did get an opportunity, such as a Yorick Treille backhand in tight with just over four minutes left in the first, Masalskis was there to smother the puck.
Latvia extended its lead to 2-0 at 1:19 of the second when Cipulis got the puck just above the hash marks and wired it past Lhenry. At 3:55, the Latvians went up 3-0 on a flukey goal by Darzins, as his attempted cross-ice pass deflected high off French captain Vincent Bachet's skate and into the net just after a French minor had expired.
Baptiste Amar rang a shot off the crossbar during a subsequent French power play, but that was as close as Les Bleus would get in the middle frame.
"We didn't get into the game properly, even though that was something we had talked about, because the same thing happened in the game against the US," said French coach David Henderson. "They outplayed us, outskated us, and outworked us in the first part of the game."
The Latvians added some insurance at 7:39 of the third, as Skrastins pinched in and faked out Lhenry, shoveling home a backhander. Jerofejevs made it 5-1 at 8:18 with a wrister off a faceoff in the French end.
With 8:22 left, Tardif banged home a rebound to spoil the shutout bid of Masalskis.
Ankipans restored Latvia's five-goal lead with 7:36 remaining, converting a cross-crease feed from Herberts Vasiljevs. Just 15 seconds later, Cipulis added the 7-1 goal as the French truly wilted, and the Latvian fans pounded their drums with sheer delight.
Nizijivs was Latvia's Player of the Game, and Baptiste Amar was chosen for France.
Latvia is gunning for its fourth quarterfinals appearance since cracking the top division in 1997. The previous three came in 1997, 2000, and 2004.
Latvia's all-time record versus France in top-division World Championship competition now stands at three wins and zero losses.
A sign among the 6,472 spectators at PostFinance Arena read, “Nous sommes super fiers de nos Bleus – allez la France” (“We are super-proud of our Blues – go France!”). It was easy to understand why French fans feel good about their team, quarterfinals or no quarterfinals. At the very least, 2009 will mark France's best finish in IIHF World Championship play since 1997 (11th).