Oskars Batna was the hero, scoring on a rebound with 44 seconds left in overtime to give Latvia its first win of the 2023 IIHF World Championship and its first win over Czechia in any World Championship.
Janis Jaks carried the puck into the zone and fired a shot that Simon Hrubec stopped, but the Czech goalie was down and out as Batna pounced on the rebound, sending most of the rauckus crowd inside Arena Riga home happy.
“No words,” an exhausted Batna said afterward. “You can hear what happened – the building exploded! Obviously, it’s an amazing feeling.”
It was the end of a back-and-forth overtime period was just a continuation of a back-and-forth hockey game that saw Czechia lead 1-0, then Latvia lead 2-1 and 3-2 with the Czechs answering twice to force overtime. Latvia outshot Czechia 35-25 in the game.
“We should have won the last game as well, but we went out and had a great start today,” said Latvian forward Rudolfs Balcers. “We knew we could beat them. We were unlucky not to get the extra point when they scored at the end, but it feels good to win.”
Fuelled by an enthusiastic home crowd, the Latvians had the faster start but it was Czechia that opened the scoring against the run of play. After a battle along the boards in the Latvian zone in the ninth minute, Ondrej Beranek came up with the puck and fed David Nemecek, who waited until a crowd formed in front of Silovs before firing it high, blocker side.
Despite being outshot 13-4 in the opening period, the Czechs very nearly went up 2-0 late in the period when David Tomasek fired a shot off the near-side post.
Early in the second period, two quick Latvian strikes put the host team into the lead and re-electrified Arena Riga.
Following some nifty stickhandling by Oskars Cibulskis along the boards, Rihards Bukarts let a shot go from the blueline that eluded everybody in front of the net, including goaltender Simon Hrubec, to tie the score. Sixty-two seconds later, a stretch pass from Ralfs Freibergs found Martins Dzierkals in full flight down the right wing, and he beat Hrubec with a quick shot high to the glove side.
“We didn't play that well today,” said Czech defenceman Ronald Knot. “We have to improve our effort and get ready for the next game. We need some more points. The Latvians started pretty well and put pressure on us, and we weren't able to take our game to another level, and that's why we lost.”
Latvia continued to carry the play but the Czechs started to turn the tied toward the middle of the period and tied the score. Just short of the game’s midpoint, with sustained pressure in the Latvian zone for the first time in the period, Roman Cervenka made a cross-seam pass to Dominik Kubalik, who beat Silovs five-hole.
The Czechs nearly regained the lead on a power play late in the middle frame. Jiri Cernoch seemed to have a lot of net to shoot at when a rebound came to him just outside the crease, but the outstretched pad and stick of Silovs got just enough of the puck to knock it wide of the post.
Latvia went up 3-2 with 14:38 to play. Deniss Smirnovs won a faceoff in the attacking zone, Toms Andersons fed the puck back to the point and Oskars Cibulskis blasted it – the shot glancing off the skate of a Czech defender, giving Hrubec no time to react.
The healthy contingent of Czech fans in the building tried to urge another goal out of their team and as the third period wore on, the Czechs increased the offensive pressure. With just over three mintues to play, the break came. Cervenka found Michal Kempny sliding in from the point to the back door, leaving Silovs to dive across in vain as the puck rippled the mesh.
Overtime was wild, with each team registering four shots on goal. In one particularly dramatic sequence, Silovs made a great blocker save off of Vladmir Sobotka when he was off-balance, and then the Latvians quickly went back the other way and Hrubec robbed Miks Indrasis at the other end. But the game stayed alive, setting the stage for Batna’s heroics.