Licence to thrill

Frantic finale gives Latvia another high-scoring win

15.05.2014
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Minsk Arena Minsk  Belarus

American goalkeeper Tim Thomas and Jake Gardiner (#51) are too late getting across on this play as Latvia's Mikelis Redlihs gives his team a 2-1 lead. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Latvia and USA traded 11 goals in a pulsating battle at Minsk Arena, with the Baltic nation rising to second in Group B after an invigorating triumph.

When fans in Minsk buy a ticket to watch team Latvia play, they can't take their eyes off the action for a second.

Following a 5-4 thriller against Kazakhstan, the Baltic nation went one better to down Team USA 6-5 and moving into second place in Group B.

It was also Latvia's first win over this opponent since 2001 and ended a six-game World Championship losing streak against the Americans.

An already pulsating game exploded in the final 10 minutes, with Latvia seemingly having victory in the bag at 6-4, only for the Americans to claw back to a one-goal game with 90 seconds left on the clock.

That dramatic final chapter opened when Latvia's Zemgus Girgensons, his country's sole current NHL player, put his team ahead with 5:25 left to play in regulation time, somehow managing to get his shot away and beat Tim Thomas in the American goal even as he was tripped by the defenceman.

Girgensons was happy to win a battle which ebbed and flowed throughout, but cautioned that Latvia needed to play with more discipline as it gets deeper into the tournament.

"It was an up and down game, we went up there, they went up there," he said. "But we have to stop taking so many penalties. A lot of them were our own fault."

And when Herberts Vasiljevs' first of the competition made it 6-4 with 141 seconds remaining it looked like game over, only for Brock Nelson to haul it back to 6-5 just 50 seconds later.

Team USA pushed forward bravely, but could not find a way to tie it up in the dying seconds and Latvia held on for another famous victory to leapfrog the opposition and move to within three points of unbeaten Russia.

The dramatic finish even outstripped the game's finest goal, scored by Kaspars Daugavins at 11:25 of the third period to put Latvia 4-3 up. His rush took him from one end of the ice to the other before he fired home from the deep slot. He richly deserved his jig of delight on the Minsk Arena ice but, in keeping with a game where the result was always in doubt, the lead lasted barely two minutes before Kevin Hayes tipped home a slapper from Seth Jones to tie it up yet again.

Jones, part of a defence that has conceded 12 goals in two games, had stern words for his team.

"Six goals is just too many," he said. "We have to help Tim [Thomas, the USA goalie] better than we did today.

"We are doing a lot of good things but have to tighten up defensively, both forwards and defencemen. We can’t let teams get too close to the net."

The first period had echoes of Beauty and the Beast. Team USA, showing little evidence of a hangover following its heavy defeat to Russia, produced some scintilating offence, with Tyler Johnson's line looking particularly appealing as it tormented some tentative Latvian defence.

In contrast, Latvia focused on the virtues of hard work and simplicity - and, against the run of play, reaped its reward. Despite the delayed penalty call on the Americans, there didn't seem to be much danger when goalie Thomas knocked Armands Dzerins' effort behind the goal. But Gints Meija went to chase the puck down and forced it into the net off the back of the goalie's skates.

That lead lasted exactly one minute before the USA conjured up a respone that had far greater aesthetic appeal. Jake Gardiner's pass from blue line to blue line elegantly bisected Latvia's defence and Craig Smith's unstoppable wrist shot did the rest, tying the game on 16:39.

But this Latvia team is always willing to hussle for goals, and just before the intermission Mikelis Redlihs for his third marker of the competition. Thomas gave up a big rebound on a Ronalds Kenins shot and Redlihs, a goalscorer last time out against Kazakhstan, swept the puck into an unguarded net.

The second session had even more to offer, even if the excitement was perhaps higher than the quality of hockey on display. Team USA came out determined to get back on top, and Johnny Gaudreau was agonisingly close to turning home a deflected shot from Jason Abdelkader early on. Soon after Gaudreau earned his team an extended 5v3 advantage, drawing a foul from Arturs Kulda as he wove his way through the defence.

Here, though, the Americans began to come undone: poor decision-making from the hitherto impressive Smith, elementary passing errors and lapses in concentration on the blue line dissipated all the pressure that had built up on Latvia, and the penalty was killed with ease. To make matters worse, Aleksandrs Nizivijs soon delivered a power play goal at the other end, surging in from the boards to find space out in front for a shot, and Latvia led 3-1.

Again, though, the response was swift. Yet another power play gave Brock Nelson the time and space to reduce the arrears within a minute, collecting a Jones pass on the face-off spot, backing Kristaps Sotnieks out of the game and lifting a backhander upstairs on Kristers Gudlevskis from close range.

"Jonesie heated up the power play there," commented Nelson. "He made a good pass that gave me some time to get to the net. I just wanted to get it up high."

Yet another power play tied it up on 31:00. This time Johnson got the goal, but he enjoyed a forunate rebound after Gudlevskis kicked out blindly to clear his crease after Smith's shot dropped down off the bar. The aftermath saw ugly scenes as Sotnieks aimed a punch at Nelson, who seemed to go down easily, to the disgust of Latvia's fans.

All that added to the atmosphere of a fast and frantic game, which delivered goals, excitement and great commitment as well as no little skill on occasion before sending most of the 11,800 fans home happy with the final outcome.

Latvia's next challenge is to face the mighty Russian offence on Saturday lunchtime. It looks like a good day for even more goals.

ANDY POTTS

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