CALGARY – At last the Swiss bankers can put a win in their vault. Christoph Bertschy and Gaëtan Haas scored twice apiece to help Switzerland beat Latvia 5-3 on Friday. Switzerland will battle Slovakia for Group A’s second quarter-final berth, while Latvia heads to relegation play.
"The Latvians played hard, but over the whole game we were better, and it's a big win for us," said Bertschy.
Bertschy, making his World Junior debut, performed with the kind of spark that fans of SC Bern in the Swiss NLA have come to appreciate, scoring his first two career World Junior goals. He’s just 17, and the best is yet to come for this savvy forward.
Haas, a 19-year-old who plays for Biel, showed great hand-eye coordination as he also got into the goal-scoring column for the first time, with two virtually identical deflections. He appeared at the 2011 tournament as well, going pointless.
The Latvians have been relegated on two previous occasions (2006, 2010). It’ll be a challenge for them to avoid completing an undesirable hat trick. Switzerland sent the Latvians down with a 5-2 win in relegation play in 2006, and also beat them 7-5 in Preliminary Round action in 2010.
"It's exciting to get to play the USA [in the Relegation Round], but Denmark is the game we need to win to stay in the top division," said Latvian assistant captain Zemgus Girgensons.
Switzerland’s Sven Bärtschi missed this game due to concussion-like symptoms. The second-year Portland Winterhawks winger was injured in a collision in the first period of a 4-3 shootout loss to Sweden.
Christian Marti also scored for Switzerland. Toms Andersons, Nikita Jevpalovs and Vitalijs Hrovostinins replied for Latvia.
Swiss goalie Tim Wolf outduelled Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis for the win, although the shots on goal were hardly even, favouring Switzerland 41-23.
The teams got off to a fast-paced, physical start. Big Latvian blueliner Nikita Kolesnikovs crunched Joël Vermin with an open-ice hit in the Latvian end. But Switzerland dominated territorially.
The Swiss opened the scoring on the power play at 8:45 when Bertschy, screening in front of Gudlevskis, backhanded in a rebound from Dario Trutmann’s center point drive. Switzerland had already outshot Latvia 9-1 at this point.
Just 2:18 into the second period, Haas tipped home Mike Vermeille’s left point shot to give Switzerland a two-goal lead.
Around the six-minute mark, Wolf made a superb save. On a 2-on-1 rush, Toms Andersons fed Zemgus Girgensons cross-ice, but the goalie slid across to stop Girgensons' quick shot.
A couple of minutes later, Latvia cut the deficit to 2-1. Edgars Sikna’s shot from the blueline deflected off Haas’s stick in front of the Latvian net and skittered to Andersons, who zinged it over Wolf’s glove.
The Swiss put on a display of virtuoso puck movement on a late-period power play. It finally paid off when Bertschy took a Samuel Walser pass in the slot and lasered it high stick side to make it 3-1 with 2:32 left before the buzzer.
Refusing to quit, the Latvians moved within one when Jevpalovs deftly tipped the puck over Wolf’s glove at 2:23 of the third period, set up by Hvorostinins and Krists Kalnins.
They tied it up at 3-3 when Hrovostinins banged a rebound past Wolf at 12:42. The excited goal-scorer flung off his glove and grabbed the national crest on his jersey in sheer ecstasy as his teammates mobbed him.
But the Latvian party wouldn't last.
Just 22 seconds later, Haas converted a lovely tip on another Vermeille left point shot, and Gudlevskis had no chance as Switzerland led 4-3.
"We knew we needed a big shift after they tied it, and we scored right away, which was really important for our team," said Haas.
With 5:57 left, Marti stepped off the side boards and beat Gudlevskis through traffic with a rising shot to give Switzerland some breathing space.
Latvia had one final opportunity when Tanner Richard was sent off for interference with two minutes left. But even with their netminder pulled for a 6-on-4 advantage, it was just too late to get anything done.
"After we tied it, they got a couple of bad goals back, and it took us out of the game," Girgensons said.
The Swiss hope to continue a positive trend that has seen them finish fourth and fifth respectively at the last two IIHF World Junior Championships. It’s heartening for them to see the investment they’ve made in their junior programs paying off. Now they have to hope their hard work pays dividends against Slovakia on New Year's Eve.
"To beat Slovakia, we need to play 60 minutes like the first 15 tonight," said Swiss coach Manuele Celio. "We need to stick to our game plan and play with responsibility."