Latvia gets past Italy
by Lucas Aykroyd|24 MAY 2021
Latvia's Andris Dzerins tries to score on Italian goaltender Justin Fazio.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
In a game featuring three disallowed goals and Italian netminder's Justin Fazio's 41 saves, Latvia earned a much-needed three points in Group B by blanking Italy 3-0 on Monday. Martins Karsums scored twice, including the go-ahead goal in the second period.

"Defensively, we were very strong, but I felt the best part of our game was definitely controlling the game in their zone," said Latvian coach Bob Hartley.

Latvia’s dream is to crack the quarter-finals on home ice. The small Baltic country previously achieved this feat in 1997, 2000, 2004, 2009, and 2018. Its peak finish was seventh in 1997, 2004, and 2009. When Riga hosted the Worlds in 2006, the Latvians settled for 10th place.

The Italians have lost three straight games in regulation and have been outscored 15-5. Still, this was a character, never-say-die effort.

"We have guys here who are playing in their first World Championship," said Italian assistant captain Alex Petan. "We have young guys who have a new opportunity. We’ve had some adversity in the last month, but it’s a great opportunity for some guys to step up and show what they can do in future with the federation. I think everyone has been doing a really good job and gotten better in certain areas."

On paper, this was Latvia’s game to lose. The last time the Latvians had lost to Italy was 4-3 in overtime in 2007, with four straight regulation wins since then, including a 3-0 decision in 2019. Fortunately for the host nation, Hartley's men delivered the goods, as they did in their history-making 2-0 shutout over Canada to open these Worlds.

Latvia, which had just 14 shots on net in its 3-2 shootout loss to Kazakhstan, outshot Italy 44-12, including a 17-3 margin in the second period. Goalie Ivars Punnanovs prevailed in his second career Worlds start. The 26-year-old, who plays for Switzerland’s SCL Tigers, also appeared in a 5-0 loss to Russia in 2017.

Punnanovs praised his Italian counterpart: "After the game, I went to him and told him he's a good goalie. He played a great, great game, and he's an Italian hero."
Latvia vs Italy - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
In a game featuring three disallowed goals and Italian netminder's Justin Fazio's 41 saves, Latvia earned a much-needed three points in Group B by blanking Italy 3-0.
LAT ITA 24 MAY 2021
Buzzing around the Italian zone, the Latvians kept their opponents bottled up for stretches. Courtesy of a Miks Indrasis set-up from behind the net, Ronalds Kenins had Fazio – making his third straight start – at his mercy, but Fazio stretched out on his belly and robbed Kenins with his right pad.

Near the 12-minute mark, the host nation thought they’d opened the scoring on a goofy sequence. Arturs Kulda’s wrister from the point was inadvertently tipped in by defenceman Enrico Miglioranzi. But since captain Kaspars Daugavins had bumped Fazio just beforehand, the goal was waved off.

Miglioranzi truly had a rough first period, as he also took a high stick in the face from Darzins. Playing shorthanded, Andris Dzerins boogied off on a breakaway, but Fazio foiled his five-hole attempt.

Latvia continued to press in the second period, and again Fazio held down the fort. On a Latvian man advantage, the ex-Sarnia Sting netminder stretched out his left leg to rob Rodrigo Abols on the doorstep.

At 12:08, Karsums, who'd hit the post earlier, finally drew first blood. After blueliner Gregorio Gios turned the puck over, Karsums charged to the net and got it past Fazio on his second attempt. Karsums, the 35-year-old former captain of Dinamo Riga, will suit up professionally again in his hometown in 2021-22 after an eight-year absence.

"The puck came through the middle to me and I kind of went on my backhand, just shot the puck on net and went for the rebound," Karsums said. "It was lucky, I guess."

Late in the middle frame, another Latvian goal was disallowed. Kenins fed Miks Indrasis cross-crease, and the 30-year-old attacker put his first try off the side of the net and then kicked the puck in. The officials didn't take long to render their verdict.

"The disallowed goals could have been a factor, but they were the right calls, so you've got to keep going," Hartley said.

Behind the Italian net, a forechecking Kenins laid a bad hit on Phil Pietronino to give the Italians another man advantage that carried over to the third period.

Italy thought Petan had the power-play equalizer with a perfect top-corner shot at 1:14. But Hartley challenged the play as offside, and the goal was (wait for it!) disallowed.

"Our two video coaches upstairs called right away and said, 'We're 100 per cent sure that it's offside,'" Hartley said. "I've worked with those guys for quite a few years now and there's a huge trust factor in them. We didn't hesitate."

Mounting a push in the dying moments, the Italians pulled Fazio for the extra skater. But they couldn't keep the puck in Latvia's zone off a faceoff, and Darzins hit the empty net at 18:48. Fazio stayed on the bench, and Karsums added another empty-netter with 12 seconds left.

The Italians, whose player and staff options heading into these Worlds were ravaged by both COVID-19 and injuries, added veteran forward Markus Gander to their roster pre-game, although he did not suit up against Latvia. No Italian scorer has registered more than two points in Riga.

Italy is in its second year of what will be at least three consecutive Worlds appearances, having also appeared in 2019 (14th place). Since there is no relegation this year, they will definitely compete at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland (Tampere and Helsinki).

Both teams have tough opponents coming up next. On Thursday, the Latvians take on the Americans, while Italy faces defending champion Finland.

Of facing the U.S., Karsums said: "They're the favourites, probably, this year. We've got today to relax, get ready, watch some videos. We've got to be ready for a fast, tough game."
Latvia vs Italy - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship