After opening with two losses, Latvia has now won three games in a row following a 3-2 win over Slovenia before a sell-out crowd of 9,150 at Arena Riga. With the win, Latvia now has eight points and remains fourth in Group B, although most teams in the group have a game in hand.
“It was a very fast game, maybe a little unexpected in a sense, but they're a good team,” said Latvian defender Karlis Cukste. “It wasn't an easy game, but I'm glad we got the win.”
The Slovenes remain in search of their first points in an effort to avoid relegation. This was as close as they’ve come so far.
“I thought we deserved some points today,” said Slovenian forward Blaz Tomazevic. “It gets frustrating. Everyone battled hard again but it’s hard.”
The lone goal of the first period went to Latvia. From a rush that originated behind the Latvian net, Andris Dzerzins carried the puck into the Slovenian zone and, after having seemingly skated too far, made a cross-ice pass to Rihards Bukarts, who one-timed it from near the goal line into the open side.
Slovenia tied the game in the 28th minute on an opportunity that was created when two Latvian players collided near the attacking blueline, leaving Kristaps Zile winded on the ice and resulting in an odd-man rush the other way. Rok Ticar passed to Anze Kuralt, who one-timed it inside the post on the short side.
Latvia regained the lead on the power play less than three minutes later when Kaspars Daugavins used a Slovenian defender as a screen and fired a shot over the glove that Gasper Kroselj never reacted to.
Latvia went up 3-1 with 2:21 to play in the middle frame. Off an attacking-zone faceoff win by Dzerzins, Roberts Bukarts fired a low shot that beat Kroselj five-hole.
Slovenia scored a big goal with just 12 seconds left in the period, however, to cut the deficit in half. Miha Verlic let go a low wrist shot from just inside the blueline through a crowd in front that eluded Arturs Silovs.
The Latvians thought they had restored their two-goal lead early in the second period when a shot from the slot by Uvis Balinskis found the back of the Slovenian net. However, Slovenia challenged for goaltender interference, which was upheld due to Ronalds Kenins backing into Kroselj just as the shot was coming, negating the goal.
They got another great chance a minute later when the puck came to Rihards Bukarts right in front of the Slovenian goal but he couldn’t bury his second of the game.
“We just stuck to our game plan,” said Cukste. “We had to remind ourselves that every little mistake, a turnover, can result in a goal against which can decide the game. We stayed confident in our ability and focus on the task at hand.”
As the minutes passed, Slovenia tried to push more offensively and much of the play in the last half of the third period was in the Latvian zone, but there weren’t many scoring chances to speak of as the Latvians defended fiercely.
With Kroselj going to the bench with 1:38 to play, the action picked up, but a tripping penalty to Robert Sabolic with 46.5 seconds to go kneecapped Slovenia’s comeback bid. The Latvians only had to maintain possession and kill off the remaining time.
With just two games left, Slovenia’s last chance to gain ground on Kazakhstan before Monday night’s showdown is Sunday afternoon against Slovakia.
“There's nothing we can do now except keep our heads up and play the next game like its the final,” said Tomazevic. “We have to stay together and hope for three points on Sunday.”
The Latvians have no time to rest after this victory with Kazakhstan on deck tomorrow. They then have two days off before finishing off their Group B schedule on Tuesday against Switzerland.
“We have to keep winning and we know it’s a tough task,” Daugavins said about chasing down a quarter-final spot. “We got a big three points today and another big game tomorrow. We just want to give ourselves a chance going into the last game, and then you never know.”