BERNE – In early Group C action on Saturday, defenceman Jack Johnson scored twice as the USA opened its tournament with a 4-2 win over Latvia.
Johnson has already doubled his offensive output from Canada 2008, where he scored one goal in seven games as an IIHF World Championship rookie. The USA is looking for its first World Championship medal since claiming bronze in 2004.
Drew Stafford and Patrick O'Sullivan also scored for the USA. Herberts Vasiljevs and Martins Karsums replied for Latvia.
With the win, the Americans stretched their unbeaten streak against Latvia at the Worlds to six games. The last time Latvia beat the USA was a 2-0 shutout for Arturs Irbe on April 30, 2001 at the World Championship in Germany.
"We made some mistakes and they capitalized on them," said Latvia's Karlis Skrastins. "They’ve just been together for a few days, but they had more speed and power."
The first half of the game was mostly played in a free-skating style that took advantage of the international-sized ice surface and didn't feature much body contact. This was a good thing for Latvia. But when the Americans picked up their intensity, the Latvians couldn't keep pace.
"You want to face a little bit of adversity and test your character somewhat," said USA head coach Ron Wilson. "We did a lot of little things well. We don’t have to be great in the first couple of games, but we want to get better with each performance."
Johnson took an interference minor 4:31 in, and just nine seconds later the Latvians struck for the opening goal with the man advantage. Vasiljevs was left uncovered in front of the USA net and converted a slick feed from Aleksandrs Nizivijs.
But Johnson wouldn't take long to make amends. He evened the score at 11:15 with a goal from the right point that appeared to tip as it eluded Latvian goalie Edgars Masalskis.
Latvia jumped into a 2-1 lead at 6:39 of the second period when Girts Ankipans sent a quick pass from behind the goal line to Karsums, who beat USA netminder Robert Esche with his quick release.
At 11:13, the Americans made it 2-2 after some aggressive forechecking. Stafford surprised Masalskis with a bad-angle shot along the goal line.
With under six minutes left, Stafford cut through traffic to the net with a backhand and Masalskis made a fine save with his right skate. But Masalskis wasn't so lucky seconds later when Johnson cut out of the corner and shoveled a forehand past the netminder's failed pokecheck for a 3-2 USA lead. The Americans outshot Latvia 17-4 in the middle frame.
Esche smartly stoned Janis Sprukts from the right faceoff circle on an early 2-on-1 in the third period.
With 13:57 left in the third, O'Sullivan snared the rebound from Ron Hainsey's centre point shot to give the Americans a two-goal lead.
"Out of all my years in this tournament, I think tonight was the best I’ve seen us play against Latvia," said Esche.
The Latvians pressed for the equalizer in the late stages, but they couldn't make any noise on the scoreboard.
In the stands, the PostFinance Arena crowd of 7,840 was dominated by Latvian supporters, chanting and pounding drums in their inimitable style.
Final shots on goal favoured the USA 38-20. Johnson was named the USA's Player of the Game, and Karsums claimed the honours for Latvia.
On Monday, the USA faces Austria, and Latvia will take on Sweden.
"I haven’t coached internationally on a big ice surface since 1998, so I have to catch up with what everybody is doing tactically," said Wilson. "Nobody plays like this in the NHL, so it’s an educational experience for me as well."