Four months ago, the teams met here in World Championship action, with Latvia easing to a 3-0 victory. But much has changed since then. Harijs Vitolins replaced Bob Hartley behind the bench, experienced forward Martins Karsums, who scored twice that evening, was left out of the Latvian squad for this tournament. But Vitolins could call on a strong North American contingent: established NHLer Zemgus Girgensons and talented duo Theo Blugers and Rudolfs Blacers added firepower to the Latvian team as the Baltic nation looks to return to the Games for the fifth time in six attempts.
Vitolins felt that the transition had been fairly smooth. "I knew the team that I was coming to," he said. "We have a good start but we can improve more and be ready for the games against Hungary and France."
Italy, too, had a fresh look: after being heavily hampered by COVID at the Worlds, the Azzurri could welcome back head coach Greg Ireland. Influential defenceman Thomas Larkin was also available once more, and Giovanni Morini, a forward with ample experience in the Swiss championship, returned to the team.
For Vitolins, who was assistant to Oleg Znarok as the OAR won Olympic gold in 2018, this was his first game with his home country since stepping down as assistant coach back in 2011. And it began with a blistering start. After three minutes of home team pressure, Janis Jaks rifled a point shot beyond Andreas Bernard in the Italian net to settle any nerves in the Arena Riga crowd. And two minutes later, an odd-man rush enabled Rodrigo Abols to roam in from the left wing and deftly convert a Roberts Bukarts feed to the slot.
"The fans' support was great and we got off to a really good start," said Latvian captain Theodors Blugers. "Then the momentum kept going. I thought we played pretty well, but there are still things we can improve."
At that stage, it looked like Italy might be in a for long evening. But Ireland’s men stuck to their task and halted the flow of Latvian goals. Late in the frame, the Italians even posed an offensive threat: their first power play of the game saw some dangerous point shots from Thomas Larkin, while captain Daniel Frank provided some threat in front of Ivars Punnenovs.
"At the beginning I thought we were showing too much respect," said Italian defenceman Daniel Glira. "We know that they are a good team but we have to play our own game and not look at the others.
"We were ready at the start, but we were sitting back a bit too much and that was the problem when they got going."
Early in the second period, Latvia extended its lead. Andreas Bernard pulled off a double save to deny Kaspars Daugavins but his defence was unable to clear the danger and the play returned to the net with interest. Rihards Bukarts was the architect, shaping to shoot before rolling out a pass for Kristians Rubins to rifle home from an acute angle on the right.
The last thing Italy needed was penalty trouble, and a two-minute spell of 5-on-3 merely added to the visitor’s woes. Indrasis needed just 21 seconds to add a fourth with a shot that went through the luckless Bernard.
Nothing was working out for the Italians. Even when the team produced a fine piece of offensive play at the start of the third, with Angelo Miceli exchanging passes on the slot and getting a perfect shooting chance, Punnenikovs stole the goal from the Italian forward. Moments later, the two renewed their duel and the goalie came out on top yet again, squeezing the forward out of a shooting position and stifling a dangerous rush.
At the other end, Indrasis got his second of the night, firing in a low, deflected shot after Zemgus Girgensons’ surged from his own zone to the other end. Inspired by that, Kaspars Daugavins did even better with a coast-to-coast effort that put a flamboyant punctuation mark on Latvia’s emphatic win.
Latvia will expect to follow up with victory over Hungary in tomorrow's late game, while Italy needs to bounce back with a stronger performance against France. Head coach Ireland said: "We got a valuable lesson tonight, we’re certainly not happy with it as competitors but we turn a new page., There’s no time for hanging heads, we have to show the pride that we have within."