U.S. overcomes resilient Latvians
by Lucas Aykroyd|26 DEC 2022
Team USA's Tyler Boucher (#13) is hit by the puck as he battles for position against Latvia's Darels Dukurs (#19).
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
Persistence pays off. The U.S. proved that principle with its 5-2 win over a gritty Latvian squad on Day One of the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. Chaz Lucius scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period as his squad pulled away.

The tiny Baltic nation kept this game scoreless through 20 minutes and 2-2 through 40 minutes. But coach Artis Abols' team couldn't complete what would have been Monday's second upset in Moncton after Switzerland edged Finland 3-2 in overtime.

"We just settled down for the third and kind of played with more character," said U.S. head coach Rand Pecknold. "I thought in the first two periods, we were nervous and made a couple of mistakes that ended up in the back of the net. But we had plenty of chances, so we just talked about letting our character come through in the third."

For the Americans, Sean Behrens stepped up with a goal and an assist. Captain Luke Hughes, Jimmy Snuggerud, and Red Savage also scored, and Dylan Duke had two assists.

"Everyone knew that we were going to face adversity going into this tournament," Behrens said. "It's a short tournament, but there's a lot of adversity, and it happened to us right off the hop even if we weren't expecting it. And it's how you respond to that adversity. I thought we did a great job of that, and really responded to our coach's message."

After a shocking 4-2 quarter-final loss to the Czechs and fifth-place finish at the 2022 World Juniors, the Americans are on a mission for their sixth gold medal. They previously triumphed in 2004, 2010, 2013, 2017, and 2021.

Anri Ravinskis and Niks Fenenko replied for Latvia. Interestingly, they are the only two QMJHL players on the Latvian roster. Both are in their second year in that league. Ravinskis plays forward for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, while Fenenko plays defence for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.

"We're not proud because we lost, but we gave them a good battle," Ravinskis said. "So it was a good game. We made some mistakes. Especially the third period wasn't the best one. But still, we're going to keep our heads up and prepare for the next game. "

Rainers Rullers added a pair of assists for the Latvians.

In goal, 17-year-old Trey Augustine of the U.S. National Team Development Program emerged victorious in his first World Junior start for the Americans with 15 saves. Patriks Berzins did his utmost with 41 saves for Latvia.

"He did an amazing job," said Ravinskis of Berzins. "He was ready for all three periods. Shout-out to him! He was the best goalie on the ice, I think."

Latvia faces Switzerland next on Tuesday, while the U.S. gets a day off before facing Slovakia on Wednesday.
Latvia vs United States - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship
LAT USA 27 DEC 2022
The Latvians are coming off their best-ever World Juniors in August. They finished seventh in Edmonton, highlighted by a 5-2 upset over Czechia, which was their first World Junior preliminary-round victory ever.

Still, the U.S, with 19 NHL-drafted players to Latvia’s three, entered this matchup as an overwhelming favourite. Final shots would favour the U.S. 46-17.

The U.S. set a strong skating tempo from the drop of the puck. But Latvia held its own in the first period, playing committed defensive hockey, despite failing to capitalize with Gavin Brindley off for slashing. Shots only favoured the Stars and Stripes 9-8.

Lucius described his team's early reaction: "Definitely a little surprised for sure. I think the whole team was. Sometimes our shots weren't going in, different things like that."

The natural inclination for Pecknold’s squad might be to execute plays as dazzling as the shiny red jacket sported by Avenir Centre organist Lynden Steeves.

However, Snuggerud's opening goal at 0:24 of the second period came from getting to the net and banging in a loose puck in the crease. A 2022 first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues (22nd overall), Snuggerud is the son of 1988 Olympian and 1989 IIHF World Championship participant Dave Snuggerud.

Latvia had an answer at 4:59. The goal was a thing of beauty. On a 2-on-1 break versus defenceman Jack Peart, Ravinskis worked a give-and-go to perfection with Rullers. Ravinskis slammed the puck into the open side as the crowd cheered for the underdogs. It was Latvia's first shot of the second period.

"It was a great feeling. When you come to World Juniors and score, it's a really good feeling here," said Ravinskis. "Great [first] pass by our captain [Gustavs Ozolins] and especially our number seven Rainers Rullers. Great pass from him and I just had to put it in."

Near the eight-minute mark of the second period, the U.S. ramped up its pressure. Berzins flailed around the crease Dominik Hasek-style, somehow keeping the puck out of the net despite losing his stick.

Behrens restored the U.S.'s lead at 9:17, getting the puck at the left point from Red Savage and firing home a shot through traffic.

The Latvians refused to roll over. Their second shot of the period also went in. This time, Fenenko did the damage, stepping in from the blue line to score at 14:24 with a high wrister with a crowd in front.

In the third period, the Americans finally got some better puck luck. They had outshot Latvia 19-4 in the middle frame and just stuck with that approach.

Lucius sifted past two Latvian defenders and lofted a backhander over Berzins' glove at 1:57 for a 3-2 lead. So far as an AHL rookie with the Manitoba Moose, Lucius (a 2021 first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, 18th overall) has two goals and three assists.

Lucius described his winner: "Behrens flipped the puck up. It came to Jackson Blake and came off as skate. And then I kind of came in with speed. So I'm on the two on one and a guy was gonna get me from behind. So I pulled it to my backhand and luckily shot it in."

Savage made it 4-2 at 6:48 as he coolly converted a rebound with Berzins sprawling. At 13:29, Hughes scored on a long shot from the right point that dinged in off the goalie's right post. There would be no late Latvian comeback.

This was just the fourth all-time meeting between the Americans and Latvia at this tournament. The U.S. won 12-1 at the 2010 World Juniors, 12-2 at the 2012 World Juniors, and 6-1 at the 2017 World Juniors.

"I think we showed everyone today that we can play hockey," Ravinskis said. "So we did a great job. And the Swiss? Let's play against them too!"
Latvia vs United States - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship