MANNHEIM – Riga is rocking tonight. For the third straight year, Latvia cracked the Qualification Round with a 5-2 win over Italy on Wednesday. The Italians, meanwhile, now face a tough battle to avoid getting relegated again, as they were in 2008.
Defenceman Arvids Rekis got the winner for Latvia early in the third period, and Ottawa Senators prospect Kaspars Daugavins paced the attack with two goals.
Latvian starter Edgars Masalskis earned his first victory of the 2010 IIHF World Championship, outduelling Italy's Adam Russo. Latvia outshot Italy 38-26.
"They played aggressive hockey, Canadian-style," said Daugavins of the Italians. "It was hard to play. We were waiting for their mistakes. They play you one-on-one, so that means if you beat your man, you’re going to get a scoring chance. We crashed the net and got to the puck."
In the Qualification Round, Latvia will aim to secure its fourth quarterfinal berth of all time. The previous ones came in 1997, 2004, and 2009, all of which led to seventh-place finishes.
The Italians have scored just three goals in three games. The last time Italy did not play in the Relegation Round in the elite division was Moscow 2007, where it finished 12th under then-coach Mickey Goulet after sending Latvia into the Relegation Round.
This time the Latvians were ready. It took just 50 seconds for Latvia to open the scoring on a big Italian defensive miscue. While Russo and his defencemen appeared to think the puck had been smothered next to the left post after Daugavins stickhandled his way in, it was very much alive. Janis Sprukts got the puck behind the net and centered to Daugavins, who fired it into the open side.
Despite outshooting Italy 12-6 in the first period and generally dominating the play, the Latvians suffered a breakdown of their own that led to the 1-1 Italian marker at 14:45. Michael Souza slipped the puck to Alexander Egger behind the Latvian defence, and Egger buried his second crack at it, lifting the puck high as Masalskis slid and lost his stick.
The Latvians continued to press in the middle frame. Russo made a fine blocker save off a Sprukts shot through traffic on the rush about five minutes in.
Eventually, veteran leadership came to the forefront. Latvia grabbed a 2-1 lead at 8:26 thanks to a slick set-up by captain Herberts Vasiljevs, who circled the Italian net and slipped a cross-crease backhand feed to assistant captain Aleksandrs Nizivijs, who snapped it in.
Masalskis was solid when he needed to be, coming out to challenge and making a series of fine saves on Nicola Fontanive and Luca Ansoldi past the midway point. At the other end, Russo stood his ground and covered up when Sprukts came in alone and tried a backhand deke with under two minutes left in the period.
At 1:56 of the third, the Latvians gave themselves a two-goal edge with their first power play goal of the tournament. Georgijs Pujacs unloaded a center point blast through traffic, and Arvids Rekis tucked in the rebound on Russo's blocker side.
A minute later, Martins Karsums got a shorthanded breakaway and was restrained by an Italian defender, leading to a penalty shot taken by Nizivijs. He came curling in slowly, but couldn't get the puck over Russo's glove.
Just 24 seconds later, the Italians finally got their first tournament power play goal to make it 3-2. Giulio Scandella took advantage of a weird carom off the sideboards, gobbled up the puck in front of Masalskis, and avoided the goalie's sprawling pokecheck before lifting it into the gaping cage.
The teams exchanged power plays down the stretch, and Latvia killed Italy's hopes of equalizing when Daugavins fired a high laser home with 2:47 left. Karsums added an empty-netter at 19:09.
"We got a couple of power-play goals, and that was the difference," said Daugavins. "That’s what hockey’s about now--power play and penalty kill."
"We had a lot of chances, but we couldn’t put the game away until the end," said Vasiljevs. "That’s how it is. You’re in control and they get a couple of shots and they tie the game. But overall, I thought we were the better team the whole game. We played well, but not well enough in the first two periods to take it easy in the third."
The colourful Latvian fans savoured every moment of this victory. In addition to the usual drum-beating, singing, and chants of “Sarauj!”, four initiative-taking fellows wore a huge maroon shirt with four necks that doubled as a “Latvija” banner, and another group unfurled an enormous replica national team jersey that covered an entire section. A mysterious sign in one corner of the rink proclaimed: “Chuck Norris Is Latvian.”
North Americans would have been amused, at one point, to hear the Latvian fans singing an adapted version of Steam's “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” with the refrain of “hey hey hey, Latvia,” since across the Atlantic that song is invariably sung to mock an opposing team that's about to lose.