HELSINKI – Latvia’s team captain Lauris Darzins scored once in each period, completing his hat trick early in the third and leading his team to a 5-3 win over Slovakia.
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"It feels nice to get some points in the standings. We finally have some confidence that we’re doing some stuff right. We don’t have time to celebrate, because we just have to rest now and get back at it the day after tomorrow," Darzins said.
"We just have to forget about this game, get some rest and get ready for tomorrow’s game [against Austria]. It’s going to be a big one for us. We had chances and didn’t score. They had some lucky bounces," said Slovakia's Milan Jurcina.
Sometimes desperation brings out the best in hockey teams. Latvia desperately needed points in the World Championship, after three straight losses to open the tournament. They also got a dream start into the game, when they grabbed the lead after just 15 seconds of play, after the game’s second faceoff.
Janis Sprukts won the faceoff cleanly, and Martins Cipulis one-timed the puck through Rastislav Stana’s five-hole.
But their joy didn’t last long. Just a minute and eight seconds later, Tomas Zaborsky scored his fourth goal of the tournament after a Latvian turnover in their own zone.
The teams exchanged scoring chances the next ten minutes, and at the 13-minute mark, Latvia got a penalty shot when Branislav Mezei covered the puck in the crease. Lauris Darzins, Latvia’s captain, fooled Stana with a couple of quick moves, and then lifted the puck into the net to give Latvia the lead again.
"It was great. We had a solid start to the game and a solid start to the third period too, scoring on the first shift. Those are huge goals at the beginning or end of the period," Darzins said.
Five minutes before the end of the period, Slovakia got into penalty trouble, and Latvia got to play over a minute with a two-man advantage when Mezei shoved Zemgus Girgensons head-first into the boards. Slovakia killed off the first penalty, but not the second, as Girgensons paid back in the best possible way.
He got the puck at the half-boards, cut to the middle and fired a wristshot top-shelf at 17:24, to make it 3-1 for Latvia.
"Nothing’s impossible in this tournament. We just understood that we can do it and we went out there to work really hard and scored a few goals," he said.
Slovakia made a goalie change after the second period. Stana stayed on the bench and Jaroslav Janus took over Slovakia’s net.
Slovakia got within a goal when Tomas Surovy’s wrist shot from the high slot beat Kristers Gudlevskis on the blocker side at 16:09. Surovy’s shot went between a Latvian defenceman’s legs, and when Gudlevskis saw the puck, it was too late.
Latvia made life a little easier on themselves, adding another goal between them and Slovakia with 1:10 remaining in the period. Lauris Darzins scored his second off a 2-on-1 rush after a Slovak turnover in the neutral zone. Darzins was looking to pass the puck, but instead of landing on a teammate’s stick, the puck hit Andrej Sekera’s stick, and bounced in.
Darzins completed his hat trick just 25 seconds into the third period. He first fired a shot from the slot, and while Janus made the save, he also lost sight of the rebound. Darzins was the first one at the puck, and slammed it in the net to make it 5-2 for Latvia.
Slovakia made one last push, and with 22 seconds remaining in the game, Tomas Surovy deflected René Vydareny's slap shot from the point to make it 5-3, but that's as close as they got.
Latvia’s regulation win over Slovakia - and France’s win over Russia - make for an interesting second half in Group H in Helsinki. Five top teams are now within three points – but the bottom five are also within three points.