Slovaks send Latvia to relegation round
by Lucas Aykroyd|30 DEC 2022
Slovakia defeated Latvia 3-0 in Group B action in Moncton on Friday. The Latvians will play in the relegation round of the 2023 World Juniors in Halifax.
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF

Slovakia improved its odds of a favourable quarter-final seeding with a solid 3-0 win over Latvia in Friday's lone game in Moncton. Alex Ciernik scored the first-period winner for Slovakia.

Captain Simon Nemec had a single, and assistant captain Filip Mesar added a goal and an assist.

"It's good," Simon Nemec said. "Goalie got a shutout. And that's great for our goalie, for our defence. And our forwards played really good. Our backcheck was great."

Goalie Adam Gajan, who excelled in the 6-3 Slovak upset over the U.S., got the call again from coach Ivan Fenes and made 27 saves for his first World Junior shutout.

"I was confident and I knew that I can play here, so I didn't feel nervous or something like this," said Gajan, a 19-year-old Poprad native who played 16 games with the NAHL's Chippewa Steel before moving to the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers, where he's had two starts. "So I feel great on the ice.

Mired in a scoring drought, Latvia finishes in last place in Group B with one point. It will face the loser of the Germany-Austria game in the best-of-three relegation round that begins in Halifax on Monday.

"Today, I think everyone is frustrated about the result," said Latvian defenceman Bogdans Hodass. "It wasn't what we wanted. A little bit unlucky for sure. We had a lot of chances to score, but the puck just didn't go in. And then we maybe did some bad mistakes and then they scored a goal."

Latvia hasn't scored in roughly two-and-a-half games. The last Latvian goal came courtesy of assistant captain Darels Dukurs at 17:50 of the second period in the 3-2 shootout loss to Switzerland. Finland then shut out Latvia 3-0.

In the Latvian goal, Patriks Berzins got his fourth straight start and registered 23 saves.

The Slovaks will battle Switzerland in their last group game on New Year's Eve. A regulation win would give them a chance to win Group B if Finland loses to the Americans. It would mark the first time Slovakia has ever topped a World Junior preliminary-round group.

Slovakia vs Latvia - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship
SVK LAT 30 DEC 2022
The intensity from both sides was palpable from the drop of the puck. It took a Slovak power play to overcome the tight-checking vibe and get the all-important first goal late in the first period.

The Slovaks had a 6-on-4 with a delayed penalty upcoming to Latvia, and they banged away at rebounds around Berzins’ crease until Ciernik finally converted for his second goal of the tournament at 17:52.

Generally, penalty-killing has been a bright spot for the Latvians in Moncton. This was the first power play goal they have conceded at this tournament after killing off seven man advantages in their previous three games.

In the second period, Mesar nearly doubled his team's lead when he rang the puck off Berzins' right post on the rush. The 2022 Montreal Canadiens first-rounder hit the opposite post with a power play blast with seven and a half minutes left in the frame.

On the same Slovak man advantage, Dans Locmelis had a fabulous opportunity to tie it up on a shorthanded breakaway, but Gajan coolly took away the five-hole and turned the Lulea forward's shot aside.

"We said in our meeting before the game that number 11 from Latvia is their best player," Gajan said. "But I was confident. I think he just hit my pad. So it wasn't like a tough save."

Gajan answered the bell again early in a Latvian power play when Dukurs tried to jam the puck past his left pad. The Latvians held a 16-6 edge in shots in the second period but had nothing to show for it.

Just past the six-minute mark of the third period, Latvian blueliner Niks Fenenko was shaken up when a shot from Simon Nemec hit him high. But like the rest of his teammates, Fenenko hung in there and kept on battling.

Simon Nemec gave Slovakia some breathing room with his first goal of these World Juniors at 9:03. Coming late, the captain cruised over the Latvian blue line on the right side, took a nice cross-ice pass from Mesar, and whipped a shot off the inside of the far post.

"There were a couple of good blocked shots in our zone and then I made a rush into the O-zone," Mesar said. "I saw Simon going straight toward the net from the blue line and I just passed to him. He knows what to do with the puck, so it went in the net."

Desperate to break through, Latvian coach Artis Abols called his timeout and pulled Berzins for the extra skater with four minutes remaining. It was fruitless, as Mesar scored an empty-netter at 17:03. Sandis Vilmanis hit the goal post with less than two minutes left, but that was as close as Latvia would get.

"I have nothing but respect for our guys," said Latvian assistant captain Martins Lavins. "They battled as hard as they could. And everyone just came up short. But that's life."

Of facing either Germany or Austria in relegation play, Hodass said: "We can't say they're bad teams. They're really good teams. And that's gonna be tough games for sure. But I think we should win them."

Slovakia has never lost to Latvia at the World Juniors. This was the eighth Slovakia win dating back to 27 December, 2005. However, the scores have gotten closer in general. The previous four meetings were decided by two or fewer goals, including Slovakia’s 3-2 shootout win at the 2022 World Juniors on Matej Kaslik’s goal.

Slovak forward Robert Baco missed the game against Latvia. He served a one-game suspension for a cross-checking incident that occurred at the end of Slovakia’s game against the Americans.
Slovakia vs Latvia - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship