Latvia opens with a win
by Andy Potts|11 MAY 2019
Latvia's Rudolfs Balcers scores a goal against Austrian goaltender David Kickert.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
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Latvia’s NHL rookies made the difference as Bob Hartley’s team began its 2019 campaign with a 5-2 victory over Austria. Rudolfs Balcers and Teodors Blugers both made their debuts this season, suiting up for the Senators and the Penguins respectively – and their line with team captain Lauris Darzins steered the Baltic state through some occasionally choppy waters in a hard-fought battle with an Austrian team seeking to consolidate after surviving last season’s relegation battle in Denmark.

Balcers got Latvia’s tying goal during a big first-period power play before the two youngsters combined to set up the go-ahead goal for Darzins seconds into the third period. They added a further helper apiece as Rodrigo Abols and Gints Meija gave the scoreline a more comfortable look. For Latvia, an opening victory in Bratislava is a shot in the arm for its hopes of making back-to-back quarter-finals for the first time; for the Austrians it’s a reminder that last year’s successful survival bid does not guarantee that things will get easier this time around.

The game started at a frantic pace but despite all that intensity there wasn’t sufficient composure on display from either side in those early exchanges. It was therefore no surprise that the first big opportunity came from an interception, Latvia’s Blugers pouncing on a loose pass in the Austrian zone and feeding Rihards Bukarts. The forward had space but couldn’t find the way past David Kickert.

Shortly afterwards, the Baltic nation was handed a big boost when Austrian defenceman Patrick Peter was removed from the game. The 25-year-old Vienna Capitals man launched himself shoulder first at Bukarts deep into Latvian territory and far from the puck. There could be few arguments about the subsequent 5+20 penalty.

That extended power play opened up the game – but not quite in the manner expected. Latvia went close when Blugers dinged a shot off Kickert’s helmet but Austria snatched the lead with a short-handed goal. A scrum broke out with the puck trapped on the left-hand boards in the Latvian zone and Raphael Herburger emerged with possession to find Alexander Pallestrang on the blue line. The D-man picked out Michael Raffl and at last we saw a moment of composure as the Philadelphia Flyer evaded the despairing lunge of Guntis Galvins and put a backhand finish over the shoulder of Kristers Gudlevskis.

The response took less than a minute. Latvian captain Darzins shot from the top of the circle and a deflection off an Austrian stick wrongfooted everyone. Balcers recovered first, controlling the puck as it ran up his leg and tucking it past Kickert from close range. That was a fifth World Championship goal for the 22-year-old, who had 14 (5+9) points in 36 games for Ottawa last season.

"I got that first goal and I think if you ask any player he'll tell you that scoring gets him going," said Balcers. "I thought all of our goals came from nice plays and we just capitalized on those chances."

Balcers had a good chance for a second goal late in the frame when Galvins emerged from the penalty box to lead an odd-man rush. However, the Senators hopeful opted to give a return pass to the D-man when he might have done better to shoot himself; Galvins fanned on his attempt and the chance was gone.
Latvia vs. Austria - 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
Latvia’s NHL rookies made the difference as Bob Hartley’s team began its 2019 campaign with a 5-2 victory over Austria.
LAT AUT 11 MAY 2019
The second period proved similar to the first. Both teams generated moments of excitement but created few instances of genuine threat. Shots flashed wild and wide, passes went astray at the crucial moment. Latvia came closest to going in front when Gints Meija rattled the crossbar with a back-hand effort as the momentum tipped towards the men in maroon.

"We were fine going into the third period," said Austria's goalscorer Raffl. "When you're 1-1 against Latvia at that stage you can't ask for much more than that. But then the little things cost us. We didn't play the way we should, we took too many penalties and they're a good team with guys who can put the puck in the net. There's no doubt they deserved to win."

That momentum paid off as soon as the third period got underway. Austria was looking kill a penalty hanging over from before the break but lasted just 23 seconds before Balcers went around the back and fed Darzins on the right-hand dot. This time, there was no mistake: a one-timer whistled past Kickert to put Latvia up for the first time in the game.

The Latvians then killed a minor penalty before killing off Austria’s resistance with a third goal on 44:19. Rodrigo Abols took a Balcers feed into the attacking zone and used Pallestrang as a screen to conceal his shot over Kickert’s shoulder. Then Meija added a fourth, beating Kickert with a 126 km/h shot from the left-hand dot to delight the vocal Latvian support in a crowd of almost 9,000 at the Ondrej Nepela Arena.

Abols admitted that his goal was a valuable boost. "f I look in the mirror, I know I can be better," he said. "Hopefully that's a little confidence boost for the next games. It's always nice to score and help the team win."

Austria attempted a last hurrah: Herburger's power play goal late in the game set the red and white banners a-flutter in Bratislava. But those colours were quickly lowered when Balcers went to the corner and set up Ronalds Kenins to make it 5-2.
"They were playing hard for two periods but we kinda knew that it's tough to play that hard and be that aggressive for 60 minutes," Balcers added. "We just stuck to the game plan and converted our opportunities."
Latvia vs. Austria - 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship