CIVIC CENTRE – Latvia secured its spot at next year’s World Junior Championship with a 7-1 win against Kazakhstan in the last relegation round game on Sunday night.
Latvia – Kazakhstan 7-1 (1-0, 1-0, 5-1)
The game finalized the fate of the four teams in the round robin. Germany and Kazakhstan will go down to Division I, while Finland and Latvia earned their way to Saskatoon and Regina in 2010.
"We still don't fully understand what we have achieved," said Latvian head coach Andrejs Maticins. "We only have like 30 players in the country that can play at this level. The fans back home are going crazy now. In Latvia when results are positive we are made heroes and if things are bad we are losers."
In Latvia's previous World Junior appearance (2006), it was relegated, so this is a big step for the small Baltic nation.
Entering the game, there was a chance that Kazakhstan could force a three-way tie in the standings between Latvia, Germany and the Kazakhs, but the Latvians did enough to squelch any thoughts of a Kazakh upset.
"All the games in this tournament were difficult for us," said Kazakh head coach Oleg Bolyakin. "We had 11 underaged players, while other teams only have about four. Furthermore, we had only 15 skaters left today due to injuries. That put a lot of pressure on our defence, which was very young and inexperienced."
Roberts Jekimovs scored the opening goal for Latvia 12:53 into the action in an evenly balanced first period. The Kazakhs had their chances, but hit a crossbar and fumbled a breakaway.
Janis Ozolins doubled Latvia's lead midway through the second period, beating Kazakh netminder Andrei Yankov high to the stick side. Kazakhstan outshot Latvia 24-16 through two, but it didn't matter.
Roberts Bukarts, the hero in Latvia’s 7-1 win against Germany, opened the third period with a shorthanded goal.
The teams closed the game with a combined five tallies coming in the late stages of the game. Artjoms Ogorodnikovs scored twice for Latvia, while Kazakhstan’s Konstantin Savenkov scored his team’s lone goal with five minutes left, cutting in from the boards and roofing one.
Ralfs Freibergs and Roberts Jekimovs also scored power-play goals in the late frenzy.
"If we play together as a team we can stay up next year as well," said Latvian defenceman Kriss Grundmanis.
For the record books, Finland finishes in seventh place and Latvia earns eighth. Germany and Kazakhstan round out the tournament standings in ninth and tenth, respectively.
JENNY WIEDEKE (with files from Joeri Loonen)
Finland - Germany 3-1 (2-0, 0-1, 1-0)
CIVIC CENTRE – Finland avoided disaster by beating Germany 3-1 on the final day of relegation round play. With the victory, the Finns clinched top spot in the round with nine points and will finish seventh overall.
2009 marked the first time the Finns have ever experienced the perils of the relegation round at this tournament, and it was critical for head coach Jukka Rautakorpi's squad to retain its place among the “Big Seven” hockey nations.
Barring a miraculous victory by Kazakhstan over Latvia, which would create a three-way tie in points (three apiece) between Latvia, Germany, and Kazakhstan at the end of the relegation round, the Germans are likely destined for Division I in 2010. Germany's 9-0 victory over Kazakhstan on December 27, the goals from which are counted in the relegation round standings, gives it an advantage in terms of tie-breakers in that scenario.
But when German coach Ernst Hofner was asked afterwards if he believes in miracles, as in a Kazakh victory over Latvia, he replied: "No, I do not."
Finland struck quickly midway through the first period. Goals just 22 seconds apart by Tommi Kivisto and leading scorer Teemu Hartikainen, who had seven points in his last two games, gave the blue-and-white squad a 2-0 lead.
Germany cut the deficit to 2-1 when Jerome Flaake scored at 9:39 of the second period.
Embattled German goalie Timo Pielmeier did his best to keep his team in the game, stoning Tomi Sallinen on one breakaway and making a great glove save on Joonas Rask on another. On another occasion, Pielmeier did the splits to thwart Toni Rajala, who had a wide-open net at the far post.
Discipline was a problem for Germany, as an end-of-period scrum saw David Wolf ejected with a match penalty. The Germans were also playing with a depleted roster, missing the likes of Gerrit Fauser, Florian Muller, Maximilian Forster, and Simon Fischhaber, who took a shot off the ankle.
"We played well today, but we took too many penalties," admitted Flaake. "That was our main problem."
The Finnish power play kicked into gear at the start of the third as Jyri Niemi gave his team a two-goal cushion at 1:31. On a two-man advantage, he wristed it home high while totally uncovered in front of the German net.
Netminder Juha Metsola earned his third tournament victory as Finland outshot Germany 38-26.
"When we entered the relegation group, we really felt bad," said Hartikainen. "There was no New Year's party at all. But I feel better now."
When asked whether he felt Finland should have scored more on Germany, Hartikainen said: "We scored enough for the win today, eh?"
The Finns finished sixth at the World Juniors the last two years. They have not captured a medal since 2006 (bronze) and haven't won gold since beating the Russians in overtime on home ice in 1998.
Germany earned promotion to the 2009 elite division with five straight wins and a 42-6 goal differential as the host team of the Division I tournament in Bad Tolz between December 9 and 15, 2007. If relegated, the earliest Germany can return to the World Juniors will be the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, New York, USA.
Since debuting at the World Juniors in 1992, the Germans have never finished higher than seventh (1992-95). After that, they were relegated in 1998, 2003, 2005, and 2007. Excluding 1998, they were never actually last overall when being relegated, however.
LUCAS AYKROYD (with files from Joeri Loonen)