"We gave them a little momentum at the start," said Michael Frolik. "That's exactly what you don't want to do against a team like this, give them two quick goals. It wasn't easy but when we got into the room after the first period we knew there was still a lot of hockey to play."
Latvia came into the game knowing that victory was vital to revive its play-off prospects. Defeat against Switzerland had Bob Hartley’s team playing catch-up in the battle for a top-four finish in Group B. But a win against the Czechs, a nation that Latvia had yet to beat in World Championship play, could change all that.
The Czechs themselves, meanwhile, were looking to bounce back from a 0-3 loss to Russia and improve to three wins from four. Milos Riha’s roster was strengthened by the arrival of Radek Faksa, available for World Championship duty after Dallas exited the NHL play-offs.
Faksa’s first contribution came on the Czech’s first power play when he set up Repik with a shooting chance between the hash marks. However, Elvis Merzlikins read the shot all the way and padded it to safety.
It wasn’t long before the Czechs encountered penalty trouble of their own. Tomas Zahorna and Michal Moravcik took quick minors and Miks Indrasis capitalized on the 5-on-3 advantage. Amid a chorus of Czech whistling, the Latvians moved the puck smoothly around the zone until Lauris Darzins feinted a point shot and slipped the puck to Indrasis. With Patrik Bartosak still sliding across his crease, Indrasis fired home short side to record his second goal of the tournament.
Faksa was involved once again at the other end when Ondrej Palat fired the puck into the centre but the Dallas forward could not get his redirect on target under pressure from two Latvian defencemen. However, the Czechs struggled to settle into their rhythm amid a steady string of minor penalties for both teams. And when Petr Zamorsky sat for high sticks, Latvia grabbed its second thanks to a terrific individual effort from Darzins. The Dinamo Riga stalwart collected the puck on his own blue line, stickhandled his way through centre ice and found a burst of acceleration to bisect the defensive pairing of Moravcik and Jan Rutta. Up close to Bartosak, Darzins found the finish and Latvia led 2-0.
"We had an awful start," Radko Gudas bluntly admitted. "But I thought we pulled it together. The first 15 minutes obviously wasn't the greatest from us. But other than that, we were all over them. We just kept going, kept coming at them and in the end it was huge."
However, the game turned upside down in the second period after Maris Bicevskis was ejected for a check to the head of Repik. The subsequent major penalty saw the Milos Riha's team take a grip on the game that they would not relinquish. Chances flowed on the power play, with Faksa going close and both Dominik Kubalik and Jan Kovar bringing good saves from Merzlikins. Repik believed he had the puck in the net, but the video showed his shot went under the goalie only to bounce harmlessly between both skates and stay out. Finally, a mighty slapshot from Filip Hronek bounced off Merzlikins’ helmet and into the net to get the Czechs on the scoreboard.
"The big turnaround was that five-minute power play where we scored the first goal," Frolik added. "I think our group got excited, the building got excited and we scored a couple of goals to get ourselves ahead."
Latvia's Ronalds Kenins saw things a little differently. "Maybe that penalty killed us," he admitted. "I don't think it was a good call, but it's up to the ref. He just put him in a bad position and the ref called a major. That definitely stopped us a little bit. They played well, but they got some luck with a couple of their goals."
The Czechs made up the majority of that crowd and they were on their feet to hail Jakub Voracek as he put their team in front with his first goal of the tournament. Dominik Simon supplied the drop pass and Voracek used Guntis Galvins to screen his intentions before firing a shot through the defenceman’s legs and over Merzlikins’ glove. Then a moment of inspired larceny extended the Czech lead. The puck got caught up between Ralfs Freibergs’s skates as he tussled with Faksa and Jakub Vrana nipped in to steal possession. He wrapped up 20 breathless minutes of Czech offence by stuffing home his team’s fourth goal and turning a two-goal deficit into a two-goal advantage.
"Definitely we still had a chance when it was 4-2," Kenins offered. "We were playing well and before we let in the fifth goal we had a chance to turn around the game."
Hopes of a Latvian revival were stymied by a fifth Czech goal. Michael Frolik’s up-and-under sent Voracek into the Latvian zone and his pass found the unmarked Simon for an angled finish. Latvia kept battling and Roberts Bukarts almost reduced the arrears when he clipped the bar during a power play midway through the final session.
With five minutes left, a too many men call against the Czechs saw Merzlikins called to the bench as Hartley tried to force the issue with a 6-on-4 situation. And the gamble paid off as Darzins rattled home a point shot with Bartosak well screened. The Latvian goalie went back to the bench with 1:40 to play. But his team's final role of the dice came to naught; the Czechs won back possession quickly and Voracek shot into the empty net to kill the game.
That sixth Czech goal prompted unsavoury scenes in the corner with Darzins ending his evening on a sour note when he was ejected for charging with 1:32 left on the clock. And the cheers at the final hooter were all from the red-clad Czech contingent in the arena as they celebrated an entertaining and hard-fought victory.
"You could see it was intense," Frolik concluded. "They are not easy to play against. They have a good coach and they work hard. They finish the checks, they work hard in the D-zone, they skate very well and I think we just stuck with it and that was the key. We stuck with our game, got the goals we needed and we’re happy with the three points."