Late flourish flattens Hungary
by Andy Potts|27 AUG 2021
photo: Ansis Ancovs
On paper, this was a horribly one-sided affair. Latvia piled up the goals and delivered a comprehensive victory, sending a message to France ahead of the decisive showdown on Sunday.

However, it's worth noting that Hungary gave Latvia plenty to think about in the second period of this game when the game remained at 1-0. Only a third-period collapse when fatigue shattered the Magyar resistance and produced eight unanswered goals. Ronalds Kenins led the scoring with a hat-trick and four assists, including a goal and an assist on two crucial scores at the start of the third, as the host nation belatedly ran riot.

Rudolfs Balcers, who scored twice in that emphatic third period performance, felt that Latvia's extra energy in the closing stages made the difference.

"Hungary came out and played good," he said. "We were a little better in the first and they were better in the second. They’re a competitive team and played hard.

"Maybe we found a bit more energy in the third and shut them down. That was it."

Full of confidence after opening with a 6-0 thrashing of Italy, Latvia began at a fast tempo. The pressure quickly built on the Hungarian net and in the sixth minute the first penalty of the night gave the home team the chance it needed. It wasn’t the most fluent power play goal Latvia will ever score but as Zoltan Hetenyi tried to withstand a fusillade the puck dropped for Janis Jaks in the left-hand circle. The defenceman’s shot took a redirect from Rodrigo Abols as he screened the Hungarian goalie. The deflection knocked the puck down to the ice, where it bounced up over Hetenyi’s pad.

Yet that proved to be the only tangible reward from a period of utter Latvian dominance. The home team fired 20 shots at Hetenyi while Hungarian was unable to register a single effort on Ivars Punnenovs’ net. However, Hetenyi, whose long career brought seven national championships and 13 seasons of international play, denied Latvia another goal.

Hungary made it to the intermission just one goal adrift, despite all that Latvian pressure. But the defensive effort came at a price and starting goalie Hetenyi had to be replaced after picking up an injury. That brought Miklos Rajna to the crease. The 30-year-old, who played in two of Hungary’s games in the previous qualification round in Nottingham, GB, was immediate under pressure but stood firm to help the Magyars neutralize Krisztian Nagy’s double minor.

And, once back at full strength, there was a reminder that Hungary was still in the game, despite all the Latvian pressure. Casual play from Deniss Smirnovs saw the puck turned over and Gergo Nagy’s shot almost presented Istvan Terbocs with a goal on the rebound. And seconds later, Ivars Punnenovs was called back into action to deny Kristof Papp. After Punnenovs spent the first period as a virtual spectator, the 27-year-old Swiss-based goalie suddenly found himself with work to do.

That prompted Latvia to ramp up its offence again, with Zemgus Girgensons firing one square into the crossbar before Bukarts set up Miks Indrasis with what should have been a simple finish, only to see the puck squirt wide. Rajna continued to distinguish himself as well, snuffing out a rush from Martins Dzierkals, a forward drawn into the team for Friday’s game.

But Hungary still posed a threat, even if Latvia had the better of the game. Istvan Sofron got clear and turned Kristians Rubins inside out before unleashing a shot that thudded into the crossbar with Punnenovs well beaten. The ever-lively home support suddenly had cause for concern; the voices of the travelling contingent were audible among the frustrations on the Latvian side.

"Latvia is ranked 10th in the world and I think we're 21st," said head coach Sean Simpson. "That means they play at a good tempo all the time, with no breaks. It took our guys a period to get used to the tempo but we reacted very well. I thought our second period was very good. We outshot them, I thought we outplayed them and out-chanced them and had a great period."

The best way to relieve Latvian frustration was to grab a goal – and within 30 seconds of the third period the home team did just that. A bad turnover in the Hungarian zone saw Ronalds Kenins steal the puck and deliver a perfectly weighted pass for Rudolfs Balcers to score at the back door. The roar around Arena Riga was one part joy, two parts relief as Harijs Vitolins’ team took a big step towards securing the win and setting up a qualification showdown against France on Sunday evening. And any further doubt about the outcome was removed a couple of minutes later when Balcers returned the favor to set up Kenins for 3-0.

Now it was all about how many for Latvia, but Hungary dug in and made things difficult until a penalty on Janos Hari enabled Teodors Blugers to score on the power play. That was the Pittsburgh Penguin’s first of this tournament, and his team’s 10th in less than two games. 

"Our third period was a disgrace to the jersey, and that's unacceptable when you're representing your country," said an angry Bence Stipsicz. Coach Simpson pulled no punches in his assessment either, but offered some grounds for hope. "We lost big tonight but it's good experience for the guys to play at this tempo," he said. "It hurts right now but hopefully we can learn from that in the future."

The closing stages saw Latvia pile on the pressure as fatigue took its toll on the Hungarian defence. A quickfire double saw Abols and Balcers extend the lead to 6-0 before a video review awarded a seventh goal after Blugers slid an effort across the face of the net and in at the far post. Balcers completed his hat-trick on a late power play and Kenins wrapped it up with his hat-trick goal.

Around the arena, the Latvian party got started - but will the celebrations continue on Sunday?