Latvia books its trip to Beijing
by Andy Potts|29 AUG 2021
photo: Ansis Ancovs
Latvia is heading to the Olympics. A 2-1 victory over France in Sunday’s decisive Group E game sends the Baltic nation to Beijing for its fifth appearance in the last six Games.

Goals from Rihards Bukarts and Miks Indrasis did the damage for Latvia tonight, putting the home team into a 2-0 lead and triggering a party atmosphere in Arena Riga. But Stephane da Costa scored late for France – the first goal Latvia allowed in the whole tournament – and set up an anxious finale before the hooter ended Les Bleus’ Olympic dream.

"We were here for one thing only," said head coach Harijs Vitolins. "Our goal was to win this qualification, and we did it."

It was a simple equation in the final game in Riga: victory – any kind of victory – would book a ticket to Beijing; defeat meant staying home next February.

France continued with Henri-Corentin Buysse in goal, a slightly surprising choice ahead of Florian Hardy, as head coach Philippe Bozon went with the team that defeated Italy 2-0 on Friday.

Latvia unveiled a new top line, with Ronalds Kenins and Rodrigo Abols joining Rudolfs Balcers on the strike trio after a prolific display against Hungary. That meant Lauris Darzins dropped to the second line, with captain Teodors Blugers on the third. However, the D-core that went 120 minutes without allowing a goal against Italy or Hungary remained unchanged in front of goalie Ivars Punnenovs.

And Punnenovs, who was just nine minutes away from going through the entire competition without allowing a goal, paid tribute to the hard work that went on in front of him throughout all three games.

"The guys blocked all the shots that might go in," he said. "They did an amazing job. It wasn't just the defensive guys, it was the forwards too.

"We scored a lot of goals in our first two games and tonight we had chances to score more. We played a helluva game and the best team won."

These nations have previous at this stage: in 2013 there was a similar showdown to book a ticket to Sochi. That time, France jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period before Latvia saved itself by taking the game to overtime. In 2021, the host nation was determined to avoid any similar alarms and the crowd in Arena Riga – large and loud – was treated to an intense, face-paced battle from the first seconds.

The opening goal came midway through the first period, and it all stemmed from defensive misfortune. Sacha Treille, so effective at the other end of the ice, saw his cross-ice pass to Antonin Manavian in the corner take a crazy bounce off the boards. Rihards Bukarts was quick to pounce, seizing possession and charging to the crease to put the puck over Buysse’s shoulder for 1-0.

"I guess the hockey gods weren't with us tonight," reflected French head coach Philippe Bozon. "We expected Latvia to come out strong and fast and we were trying to calm down the tempo of the game at the beginning.

"I thought we did a good job of that, but then we were beaten by a bad bounce that put the puck right on their player's stick."

There was no let-up in the intensity in the second period. France started on the power play, but almost gifted Latvia a short-handed goal when Blugers stole the puck away from Florian Chakiachvili only to be denied by Buysse. After surviving that scare, the French picked up momentum but was unable to breach the Latvian penalty kill. Back at equal strength, though, the home team was unable to reimpose itself on the game. Nerves were beginning to fray in the arena as France patiently probed in front of Punnenovs’ net.

Midway through the frame we saw big chances at both ends, with Charles Bertrand screwing his shot wide of the target when space opened up for him in the middle of the Latvian zone. Immediately play broke to the other end, where Abols was denied by a last-gasp poke check that got just enough to take the puck away as the forward lined up his shot.

That exchange ushered in a stronger finish to the middle session for the host, with Buysse twice grateful to his goalposts as first Andris Dzerins and then Kaspars Daugavins went close to doubling the lead. France withstood the pressure and went into the second intermission with just one goal to make up.

One became two, though, when Romain Bault sat for high-sticking. The Latvian power play came up with a killer goal when Indrasis burst through a gap between Manavian and Antoine Roussel. That put him face-to-face with Buysse and the Latvian forward’s backhand flick did just enough to wobble its way over the goalie’s pad and into the net

Indrasis celebrated like it was a gold-medal goal, knowing that his team’s defensive excellence this weekend made a two-goal lead into a daunting advantage. But the impregnable Punnenovs was beaten at last with 8:45 on the clock when Stephane da Costa wired a shot over the goalie’s pad when space opened for him.

That set up a nerve-jangling finale. The game became stretched, space emerged in both ends and there were half chances for both teams. Then Damien Fleury went agonisingly close to a tying goal and as Latvia scrambled to clear, a penalty on Blugers enabled France to go 6-on-4 for the closing seconds. Les Bleus camped in the offensive zone, carefully trying to fashion the chance that could save the game, but Latvia held on to book that much-prized ticket to Beijing.

For Vitolins, though, qualification is just the beginning. "We want to continue," he said. "We remember how Germany won in qualifiying here last time and went all the way to the final, they only lost to the Russian team. Now we want to keep going and we hope we can get to the next level."