What a game. What a moment.
“Unbelievable!” Ralfs Friebergs exclaimed.
“It's hard to describe. It's amazing!” said Dans Locmiels.
It’s not the first time that Latvia has qualified for the quarter-finals at the IIHF World Championships. That’s happened a few times before, most recently in 2018 in Denmark. But never at home.
In both 2006 and 2021, the two previous times the World Championship was held in Riga, the Latvians finished fifth in their group, just outside the playoffs. In 2006, Latvia beat Norway in its last game but had already been eliminated. In 2021, the Latvians could have advanced with a win in their last game but fell 2-1 to Germany before a pandemic-restricted crowd of 934.
“Usually for us, the last game is the most important but the luck isn’t on our side,” said Locmiels. “Today was different. We left everything out on the ice. We played our hearts out, played for our country. It's the best feeling ever in my life.”
This time, the Latvians had Arena Riga filled to the brim with over 9,000 of their fans. That seemed to help when they neared their breaking point in the middle of the third period, when two Swiss goals put them in a tough spot. They’d played a great game to that point, but it seemed to be slipping away from them.
“We have the best fans in the world,” said Friebergs. “When it’s hard, they make it easy.”
“It means a lot,” said goaltender Arturs Silovs, who stopped 28 of 32 Swiss shots in the game, including a barrage in the third period with his team’s hopes hanging by a thread. “We’re playing for our home crowd, which is pressure but we also want to bring joy to this country. We delivered today and made the quarter-finals. Nothing could be better, eh?”
On Switzerland’s third-period push, Silovs said: “They’re a good team, they really have a lot of skill, so we had to be ready for that.”
With first place in Group B already sewn up, the Swiss rested some of their starts but they still had some dangerous offensive weapons, including Kevin Fiala and Andres Ambuhl, who each scored. Ambuhl's came on on a one-timer with 6:14 to go to give Switzerland its first lead of the game.
“For sure, it hurts,” said Silovs. “You’re leading 2-1 and then a lucky bounce and then a slap shot from the hashes – it’s hard to make that save, right? But we managed to get through. That’s the most important thing.”
“It was good hockey the whole way, but when it was closer near the end we wanted that goal and that one point,” said Friebergs. “When it was 3-2, we didn’t panic. We played great. Right moment, right time, we scored.”
For the tying goal with 5:04 to go, it was two of Latvia’s leaders that stepped up, with Rodrigo Abols feeding 35-year-old captain Kaspars Daugavins on a 2-on-1. Then in overtime, it was Rudolfs Balcers with a one-timer on the power play, giving him a three-point night after two assists.
“I think the bigger goal was the third one when we tied the game to get it to overtime,” Balcers said about Daugavins’ equalizer. Indeed, the one point earned just by getting the game to overtime was enough to see Latvia through.
“Kaspars, you know, he’s seen a lot,” Balcers said about the team captain. “He’s played a lot of hockey in his years and he knows the game and how to step up in the big moments. I think that leadership he brings to the group is unreal for us.”
Nonetheless, the Latvians weren’t about to roll over for overtime even though they’d accomplished their main goal.
“The coach was talking to us about how we were going to score,” said Friebergs. “We had some set plays. We weren't going to give up just because we got the one point.”
“For me, it was sort of relief, but still you want to win the game, right?” Silovs said about the feeling at the end of the third period. “Because if you lose in OT it’s not going to be the best feeling. You always want to win.”
When Silovs saw the shot from Balcers hit the back of the net at the far end: “Yeah, then it was pure joy. It was lots of fun.”
“We needed it for the fans,” said Friebergs. “In the country, times are tough ... the economy. They needed something positive.”
They now have a quarter-final game to look forward to. Back in 2018, the Swedes were Latvia’s quarter-final opponent and it was a pretty close game, with Sweden prevailing 3-2 en route to the gold medal. This time?
“We’re up to the challenge,” said Silovs. “We’re going to do our best to get up for the game and just do everything, and have no worries after.”
When it was suggested that the Latvian players might party the night away with their fans, a restrained Silovs said: “No, we’d better rest up instead. It’s not every year we play the quarter-finals so we’ve got to be ready.”