CALGARY – With a 2-1 victory over Denmark, Latvia secured its spot at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. Nikita Jevpalovs scored the overtime game-winner. The Danes are relegated to Division I Group A.
At 1:43, Jevpalovs snared the rebound from Robert Lipsberg's shot and fired it through the legs of Danish netminder Sebastian Feuk.
"It was sick," said Jevpalovs with a smile. "I only scored one goal in the tournament before, and to score one like this is a big deal."
The other two Relegation Round teams, the United States and Switzerland, have already booked their tickets for next year’s tournament in Ufa, Russia. Germany has won promotion from Division I and will also take part in Ufa.
Latvia finishes ninth here in Calgary, while Denmark is tenth. Both sides were newly promoted for 2012. Latvia’s all-time best World Junior placement was eighth -- it avoided relegation in Ottawa in 2009, the only such instance. In Denmark’s one previous stint in the elite division, it finished tenth and got relegated (2008).
"Right now there are not too many words to explain how bad our feelings are," said leading Danish scorer Nicklas Jensen, a 2011 first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks. "That’s not what we wanted. I think the game went quite well for both teams. Both teams had a lot of chances, but Latvia scored on a golden opportunity in the end. That’s what won them the game. That’s hockey."
Thirteen Latvia players are eligible to return for 2013, so the country's prospects look reasonably bright.
"It was the best game for our team at the World Juniors," said defenceman Nikita Kolesnikovs. "We played well, and we didn’t have so many mistakes like in the game before [a 12-2 loss to the Americans]."
Denmark made it 1-0 at 3:21 when Oliver Bjorkstrand finished off a nice rush. He took Thomas Spelling’s pass and slid a shot inside Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis’ left post.
With less than five minutes left in the first, the Latvians thought they’d tied it up when captain Kristians Pelss tapped in a puck out of mid-air that had bounced off the glass behind Sebastian Feuk. But the officials waved it off since Pelss’ stick was clearly above the crossbar.
Just past the midway mark of the second period, Gudlevskis stoned Nicklas Jensen on a clean breakaway with a nice pad save.
At 11:34, eight seconds into the game’s first power play, Latvia knotted the score when Pelss unleashed a one-timer from the right side that eluded Feuk.
The game exacted a physical toll. Late in the middle frame, Latvia’s Kriss Lipsbergs was injured behind his team’s net. He was helped off and limped away to the dressing room. Early in the third, Jensen was shaken up when he fell heavily into the boards behind the Latvian net, but he’d keep playing after receiving attention from the trainer.
The Latvians were happy to pay the price. "I’m glad we won and stayed up," said Pelss. "It was our goal."
"We shot more often on their goal," said Jevpalovs of the final 31-23 edge in shots for Latvia. "I think we were faster, and wanted it more and worked harder."
Attendance at the Saddledome was 6,983.