CALGARY – Slovakia started its 2012 World Junior campaign off on the right foot, defeating Latvia 3-1 Tuesday on Marek Tvrdon’s third-period winner. In four all-time meetings at this tournament, the Slovaks have never lost to the Latvians.
“It was a very hard game to play for the first game of the tournament," admitted Tvrdon. "But it was a good finish."
Tomas Jurco and Michal Toman also scored for Slovakia. Juris Ziemins replied for Latvia.
Slovakia remains a longshot to medal at this tournament, having played for bronze on just two occasions. It won bronze in 1999 under coach Jan Filc, who three years later became the mastermind behind Slovakia’s lone senior IIHF world Championship victory. In 2009, a Cinderella Slovak team backstopped by goalie Jaroslav Janus lost 5-2 to Russia in the third-place game.
In the previous World Junior games between these teams, Slovakia defeated Latvia 7-4 (2006), 7-2 (2009), and 8-3 (2010). So this was certainly an improvement for the Latvians, returning to the top division for 2012 after a one-year absence.
Eight Slovak players suit up for Canadian major junior teams, but their familiarity with the smaller North American ice surface didn’t confer a major advantage in this Group A tilt. The Latvians were no less physical than their opponents.
"It was a very physical game," said Slovak defenceman Martin Gernat. "Latvia played hard."
Latvian netminder Kristers Gudlevskis did all he could to keep his team in the game as Slovakia outshot the Latvians 45-26.
"I felt good out there, and it’s my job to stop the puck," said Gudlevskis. "It was a close game, but we lost."
With zero points out of two games so far, Latvia’s hopes of cracking the elimination round are fading rapidly.
In the first period, the Latvians failed to capitalize on two early power plays. Even on their third man advantage of the period, they got no closer than Zemgus Girgensons’ high shot off the rush that Slovak goalie Juraj Simboch gloved down. Girgensons, a 17-year-old Riga-born centre who plays for the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, is projected to be a first-round NHL draft pick in 2012.
Gudlevskis was equal to the task when Slovakia burst down on a 3-on-1 nearly four minutes into the second, stopping a give-and-go attempt.
The Latvians drew first blood at 6:41 of the middle frame, with Juris Ziemins speeding to the net and capitalizing on a rebound off the end boards that Simboch failed to control. At the other end, Gudlevskis continued to impress, foiling a dangerous Vladimir Dolnik rush near the midway point.
Slovakia tied it up at 15:28 when Tomas Jurco tipped Martin Marincin’s hard point drive perfectly past Gudlevskis.
Latvia pressed hard with a late second-period 5-on-3, but despite some good, patient puck movement, they couldn’t regain the lead.
The Slovaks gained their first lead of the game when Marek Tvrdon banged home a loose puck past a sprawling Gudlevskis at 2:02 of the third period.
"Our goalie was amazing, but we just gave up too many shots," said Girgensons.
Midway through the third, Ziemins came close to tying it up when he deked Simboch to the ice, but rang the puck off the goalie’s right post from a bad angle. Edgars Klavins nearly exploited some sloppy Slovak defence from the same spot with about six minutes left, but couldn’t put it home.
Latvia called a timeout with 1:16 left and the goalie pulled for the extra attacker, but couldn't find the range, and Michal Toman sealed the deal for Slovakia with 37 seconds remaining.
"It's good for us to get that first win," said Tvrdon. Slovakia faces the defending champion Russians next on Wednesday, and Latvia gets Russia Thursday.