Dennis Rasmussen scored the winner into an empty net with 34 seconds left as Sweden beat Latvia 5-4. The Latvians needed a regulation win by two goals to have any hope of making the quarter-finals.
Outside Ondrej Nepela Arena, it was a mixture of sunshine and showers on Monday. Inside, Swedish fans were in a sunny mood as their team rained on Latvia's dreams and officially secured a quarter-final berth. However, the Latvians, who fell 3-2 to Sweden in last year's quarter-finals, certainly didn't make it easy on the two-time defending champs.
"It's a little bit different, obviously, but we knew that they needed the win," said Sweden's Mattias Ekholm. "We knew that we needed one point to qualify for quarters. So in an even game with two minutes to go, I figured they'd pull the goalie and go all-in for it."
Sweden will battle Russia in its group finale. Ekholm said: "They have almost an all-star team over there. So we know they're highly skilled. They're really good. Obviously it will be a tough game. It'll be for a big opportunity to stay over here and not go to Kosice. For us, it's a big game and we're going to have to regroup."
Especially in the goal-happy third period, this was a back-and-forth battle with the tenacious Latvians. Even though the Latvians won’t earn their sixth quarter-final berth of all-time, they can take pride in staying in the top division every year since 1997.
"Our goal was to win the game and get three points to keep our chances alive for the quarter-finals," said Latvian captain Lauris Darzins. "I think we gave it everything we had. We went out each shift and tried to play three quality periods to give ourselves the best chance. I’m proud of the guys on our team. It’s just too bad it wasn’t quite enough."
Elias Pettersson, Adrian Kempe, Anton Lander, and Patric Hornqvist also scored for Sweden. William Nylander, who had two assists, leads the tournament with 15 points (4+11=15).
Nylander, who had just 27 points in 54 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season due to a contract holdout, said: "You always want to represent your country. It's always an honour. I felt like I needed to come here to get my game back as well. It was a little tough. It was a weird season for sure. It took some time to get going, and now it's going pretty well."
Roberts Bukarts had a hat trick and Janis Jaks added a single for Latvia.
Darzins praised Roberts Bukarts: "At this level, to score three goals, we’re really happy for him. He’s a great shooter and a great team guy too, so he deserves it."
The Latvian fans chanted “Latvija!” and “Sarauj!” and pounded their drums with fervour. Latvia needed three points by a two-goal margin, followed by another win over Norway and a Swedish loss to Russia, all in regulation time. It was a wild dream that would come to naught.
After Oskars Batna wrestled Loui Eriksson to the ice, Sweden took advantage of its first power play. At 10:15, Pettersson accepted a pass from behind the net from Gabriel Landeskog and cued up his lethal wrist shot before beating Gudlevskis high to the glove side for his second goal of these Worlds. The leading scorer of the Vancouver Canucks pivoted in the right faceoff circle and gave the Latvian bench his famous death stare.However, Pettersson said his mood contrasted with his expression: "A lot of joy, of course. I scored the other day, but it was fun to score a nice goal and an important goal."
Less than a minute later, Lundqvist showed why he’s nicknamed “King Henrik,” sliding across to rob Teddy Blugers on a 2-on-1 set-up by Rudolf Balcers.
In the second period, John Klingberg, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Gabriel Landeskog all hit goal posts before the midway mark. But against the flow of the play, Latvia made it 1-1 at 9:35 with Ekman-Larsson off for slashing. It was a Bukarts brothers special. Rihards Bukarts sent it cross-ice to Roberts Bukarts, who took a short wind-up and blasted it home from the right faceoff circle.
Motivated and hustling all game long, Pettersson remained a target for coach Bob Hartley’s gritty team. On one sequence in the Latvian end, he delivered a reverse check along the boards on Arturs Kulda, who roughed him up with cross-checks. Pettersson then dislodged the net with Kristaps Sotnieks guarding him in front.
Of the physical and verbal jousting, Pettersson said: "It’s hockey. Every game there’s some of that. Maybe there was a bit more today, but that’s OK. It’s part of the sport, and it just makes the game a little more competitive."
The Swedes got everyone involved in their 2-1 go-ahead goal at 13:38. Lundqvist headmanned the puck to Klingberg, who found an onrushing Nylander, and he sent it over to Adrian Kempe for a high shot that sailed past Gudlevskis.
At 1:11 of the third period, Roberts Bukarts was credited with the power-play equalizer on a Swedish own goal. Blueliner Mattias Ekholm tried to clear the puck away from Lundqvist's crease and inadvertently put it off both of Eriksson's legs and into the gaping cage. For Canucks supporters, the moment evoked memories of Eriksson's first home game in 2016, when he inadvertently put the puck into his team's empty net.
Just 2:31 later, the Latvian fans exploded when their team took a 3-2 lead. Darzins rushed into the Swedish zone and pulled up along the boards. He dished it to Rihards Bukarts, who got it over to Jaks, and he put it into the open side.
Sweden struck back at 9:00. Adrian Kempe found Lander in the right faceoff circle and his one-timer blast slipped through Gudlevskis to make it 3-3.
At 10:09, Tre Kronor went up 4-3. Nylander fed the puck from behind the goal line to Ekholm, whose shot deflected in front, and Hornqvist, showing his usual good net-front presence, shoved it in for his sixth goal of these Worlds.
"I think the strength of our team is that we were down in the third, but we didn't panic," said Ekholm. "We didn't do anything. We stayed calm. We went out there, went about our business and scored two quick ones."
Refusing to fold, Roberts Bukarts drew Latvia even at 4-4 with 3:24 left in regulation time. Miks Indrasis set him up from the corner and he batted his own rebound in out of mid-air. The goal was video-reviewed for a high-stick and deemed good. However, Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg challenged the play, claiming it was offside. A second review ensued, and the goal still stood.
The Latvians, however, couldn't break through either with the ensuing man advantage for delay of game or with their goalie pulled for the extra attacker. This was the seventh consecutive Swedish win over Latvia at the Worlds. The Latvians last defeated Sweden in 2009.