Latvia gets off the mark
by Andy Potts|16 MAY 2022
Latvia's Roberts Bukarts celebrates his second-period goal against Norway.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Latvia withstood a late Norwegian surge to claim its first victory in Tampere. A 3-2 verdict lifts Harijs Vitolins' team off the foot of Group B.

But this was a hard-fought affair. In the third period, Norway hit back strongly, almost extinguishing a 3-1 deficit after outshooting the Latvians 19-4.

Goalie Elvis Merzlikins found himself in the eye of that storm. "They were coming for us," he said after the game. "We had to keep defending those long shots and get the puck out of the zone.

"I think that's what my defencemen did, and my forwards as well. They did a great job, they blocked shots in front of me and cleared all the rebounds. That's what counts, that's why we won." 

Two assists from Rudolfs Balcers helped Rodrigo Abols and Nikolajs Jelisejevs get Latvia on top, and Roberts Bukarts added a third midway through the second period. Norway's replies came from Mats Rosseli Olsen and young defenceman Max Krogdahl.

Norway's Andreas Martinsen added: "It’s a little frustrating that we ended up with the loss but it was a tight game. Obviously, there was a five-minute period there in the second that kinda killed us, but still, we had chances to score two or three goals in the third period."

Both teams came into this game with questions to answer. Latvia was still seeking its first victory, despite producing creditable performances against the USA and especially Finland in its opening games. Vitolins was boosted by the addition of defender Kristians Rubins, available to come to Finland after the Maple Leafs came out of the NHL playoffs on Sunday. He’s on the roster, but did not dress today. In addition, the Latvians are waiting to hear from Theo Blugers after the Penguins fell on Monday.

Norway, meanwhile, could boast a victory over Great Britain on Sunday – but the way the Brits took that game to a shoot-out after trailing 0-3 midway through the third period suggested that there is more work needed from the Norwegians. Head coach Petter Thoresen reshuffled his defensive pairings, elevating Mattias Norstebo from the third line to the second while Daniel Rokseth went from four to three. Christian Kaasastul was listed as a seventh blue liner. In addition, forward Magnus Geheb got the nod on the fourth line and Henrik Holm replaced Jonas Arntzen as cover goalie.
Latvia vs Norway - 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
LAT NOR 16 MAY 2022
It took time for the game to settle into a rhythm, but Latvia was lifted by a couple of power plays and steadily assumed control. That pressure paid off on 14:04 when captain Abols opened the scoring. A precise feed from Ronalds Kenins created the goal; Norwegian defenceman Magnus Brekke could not get his stick in the way and Abols nipped in behind him to beat Henrik Haukeland.

"It was one of the rare occasions when we played fast up," said the goalscorer. "Ronny [Kenins] found me with a great pass and I just had to have my stick on the ice and be ready to score."

It would have been no injustice if Latvia had taken that lead to the intermission, but Norway had other ideas. Ludvig Hoff returned to the game after serving a minor penalty and brought the play into the Latvian zone. His pass to Rokseth seemed to get away from the 30-year-old defender, but once the puck was under control it was a simple steer to the slot for the on-rushing Rosseli Olsen to deliver a one-timer that flew past Merzlikins.

Latvia had seen a winning position slip away against Finland in the previous game and looked for a fast start in the middle frame. Oskars Batna almost forced it, stripping Andras Klavestad of possession and advancing. However, an ill-judged return pass to Batna later in the play halted the move and invited Norway to break. Now the odd-man rush was going the other way but Merzlikins slid across to pad Kristian Jakobsson’s shot to safety.

Then came the game’s big moment. There was little doubt about a holding call on Norway’s Mathias Tretternes, but on the same play the officials went to the screens to check a possible slew foot by Hoff. The video told its own tale. Hoff took a game penalty and Norway faced two minutes of 3-on-5, to be followed by the remainder of a major.

Jelisejevs was quick to pile on the punishment, meeting a Rudolfs Blugers feed to the top of the right-hand circle with a crashing one-timer that gave Haukeland no chance. That left Norway down and facing 4:33 on the penalty kill. Hard work – sometimes frantic – kept Latvia at bay until the teams were back to full strength but that energy-draining effort took its toll. 

The cost was all too obvious when Roberts Bukarts got the puck in the corner and glided to the face-off dot. Nobody moved to close the Latvian forward, and he was able to get off a wicked wrist shot that snuck inside the near post while Batna put up the screen.

Two goals in front for the first time in this year's championship, Latvia felt that things were starting to move forward. "We knew we had to commit to the things that we talked about and play the game the right way," said rookie defenceman Karlis Cukste. "We did that, so we can be happy today."

Norway could at least point to its adventures on Sunday as evidence that a two-goal lead is far from impregnable going into the third period. And when a delayed penalty got the Vikings camped in the Latvian end, Krogdahl shot over Merzlikins’ glove to bring the game back to life. That was a first World Championship goal for the 23-year-old from Baerum and it set up a tense finale.

Latvian captain Abols accepted some responsibility for that blow. "It was a lack of concentration there from me and our D-man," he said. "We both went to the corner and left the front of the net open. They scored right away, so that's something we have to eliminate from our game."

Norway continued to press, Merzlikins found himself uncomfortably busy and had one heart-stopping moment with eight minutes to play when he somehow managed to block a Rosseli Olsen shot that he seemed not to see at all.

There was more danger to come when Norway got a power play with five minutes left. Latvia defended watchfully, suppressing the threat, but by the time Karlis Cukste returned to the game, Norway had a commanding 14-4 lead in third period shots on goal. All too often, though, those efforts were coming from the outside as the maroon-jerseyed rearguard kept its shape.

With 1:48 on the clock, Thoresen called a time-out and Haukeland went to the bench. A last-minute scuffle had the teams playing five against four for the remaining 52 seconds and Ken Andre Olimb fired a dangerous shot narrowly wide of the target before Latvia closed out the win.

"It was hard for us to come back, but the guys worked really hard in the third period," concluded Norwegian head coach Thoresen. "But we didn't score two goals, we only scored one, and we lost."
Latvia vs Norway - 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship