RIGA – Anyone leaving Arena Riga tonight will have to get their ears checked in the morning. Playing in a deafening atmosphere, Latvia took a big step towards its fourth straight Olympic qualification, defeating second-place Kazakhstan 3-2.
“It was an exciting game, one that could have gone either way,” said Latvia head coach Ted Nolan. “I was extremely proud of the way the guys competed and worked, but what made me even more proud tonight was to see that crowd. To see a full house the players really enjoyed it…just one of those special nights and that’s what hockey’s all about.”
Tied 2-2 after the second intermission, the game turned for Latvia early in the third period. A giveaway in the slot by Kazakhstan defenceman Kevin Dallman was forced by Janis Sprukts, who gained possession and got the puck to Martins Karsums. Karsums found Lauris Darzins for the easy one timer and the game winning goal.
“It was a great play by my linemate to get the puck,” said Darzins. “I was able to get back in position to score and it turned out to be the key goal for us.”
Riding a wave of momentum supplied in part by the 10,000-plus home crowd at Arena Riga, the Latvians jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening three minutes. First it was Juris Stals scoring with a no-look backhand coming off a rebound from a point shot by Arvids Rekis. Less than a minute later Robert Jekimovs lost the handle on the puck during a wraparound attempt, but his teammate Mikelis Redlihs got his stick on the loose disc and scored his team’s second goal of the game.
With Latvia up by two and dealing with a hostile crowd, Kazakhstan pulled goaltender Vitali Kolesnik in favour of Vitali Yeremeyev. After killing off two penalties the team was able to settle down a bit, and with just under five minutes remaining in the period defenceman Kevin Dallman got the puck and skated hard for the Latvian net. His shot was stopped by Edgars Masalkis, but the Latvian goalie wasn’t able to contain the rebound and Dmitri Upper swooped in to clean up the play and cut Latvia’s lead to one.
“It was a really difficult environment,” said Kazakhstan head coach Vladimir Krikunov. “At some points the players could barely hear the coaches or each other.”
Playing in his first game of the tournament, Yeremeyev was called upon early in the second priod to make a point blank save on Sprukts, when the puck bounced off the boards behind the net and came right in front on the Latvian forward’s stick.
Kazakhstan responded by equalizing with 7:00 remaining in the second period. With Latvian forward Aleksandrs Nizivijs serving his second straight penalty, Roman Starchenko gained possession in Latvia’s zone and skated into the high slot, faking a slap shot before sending a wrister straight into the top corner to tie the game 2-2.
Latvia (2W-0L) will have a day off before facing France in its final game of Group E. A win or overtime loss will be enough for the team to reach the Winter Olympics for the fourth straight time.
With a crowd like they had on Friday night, for Nolan and Co. it might be time to start packing for Sochi.
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