Latvia sends Austria down
by Lucas Aykroyd|04 JAN 2023
In relegation round action, Latvia defeated Austria 4-2 on Wednesday to punch its ticket to the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden. Pictured are Latvia's Peteris Purmalis (#20) and Austria's Vinzenz Rohrer (#14).
photo: Tim Austen / IIHF
With a 4-2 victory over Austria on Wednesday, Latvia swept the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship best-of-three relegation series in Halifax and secured its spot at the 2024 tournament in Gothenburg, Sweden.

This year, Latvia didn’t match its all-time best seventh-place finish (2022) or pull off any upsets (like downing Czechia 5-2 at that Edmonton tournament). But getting to play in a third consecutive World Juniors is a coup in its own right for the small Baltic nation.

"Our goal wasn’t to play in the relegation games but to play in the quarter-finals," said Latvian assistant captain Darels Dukurs. "But at least this was a good tournament for the younger guys who can come back next year. That’s good for us and good for Latvian hockey."

The Austrians, who lost 5-2 to Latvia on Monday, are relegated to Division I for 2024. This is the third consecutive time Austria has finished tenth and last at the World Juniors. However, in 2021 and 2022, there was no relegation due to the global pandemic.

"There’s no quit," said Austrian coach Kirk Furey. "I couldn’t be prouder of our crew. Just because the result isn’t what we wanted, it’s all about the process. Being a small country in the hockey world, we have to take away the positives from this and move forward."

‚ÄčAustria made it exciting with two late goals with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, but couldn't complete the comeback. 

Latvia's Bogdans Hodass stepped up with a goal and an assist. Girts Silkalns, Dans Locmelis, and Sandis Vilmanis added singles.

"We weren’t perfect but we got the win," said Hodass. "That’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how we did it, we won."

Luca Auer and Finn van Ee replied for Austria. Top defence prospect David Reinbacher, who missed the last game due to injury, chipped in a pair of assists.

"We showed we could play with Latvia and Germany," said van Ee. "We had moments against all countries where the whole team showed we can play. You could say that the trajectory of Austrian hockey is going in the right direction. Hopefully we can get back here pretty soon."

In net, Latvia’s Patriks Berzins played his sixth consecutive game of the tournament and made 32 saves. Austrian starter Thomas Pfarrmeier recorded 15 saves.

Latvian captain Gustavs Ozolins, who has a lower-body injury, was replaced by Elvis Laskovs, who made his tournament debut. Laskovs, 18, plays for the Nordic Hockey Academy in Austria.

Klavs Veinbergs, who had one assist at these World Juniors, was also out of the lineup. The 19-year-old forward, in his first season with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, is a 2022 seventh-round draft pick of the Tampa Lightning. The other two NHL picks on Latvia’s roster include Locmelis, a 2022 fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins, and Vilmanis, a 2022 fifth-round pick of the Florida Panthers.
Austria vs Latvia (Rel.) - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship
AUT LAT 04 JAN 2023
Neither side looked groggy despite the 11:00 start time at Scotiabank Centre. Latvia's first-period advantage in shots was just 13-11, contrasting with its 22-1 gap in the third period of the first relegation round game.

Hodass got the Latvian party started at 6:40 with his second goal of these World Juniors. Pinching in down the middle, the strapping Medicine Hat Tigers defenceman took Rodzers Bukarts’s pass from the side boards and eluded Austrian checkers to lift the puck over Pfarrmaier’s glove. 

With just over two minutes left in the first, Berzins preserved the Latvian lead with a sharp save on Austrian captain Vinzenz Rohrer right in front after a defensive-zone turnover.

In the second period, the Austrians pushed back with a 13-6 edge in shots but couldn't find the range. Berzins had to stay on his toes, foiling Auer when he got in alone and denying Scherzer's wraparound attempt.

"We knew [the Austrians are] a good team, but we weren’t nervous," Dukurs said. "We just wanted to keep playing our way."

With 3:48 left in the second, Silkalns made it 2-0 Latvia when he won a foot race with defenceman Aron Summer and tucked the puck past Pfarrmaier.

Just 1:38 later, Locmelis tallied his team-leading third goal of the tournament. Anri Ravinskis cleverly circled the Austrian end and found the Latvian assistant captain cross-ice at the bottom of the right faceoff circle. He fired the puck into the open side.

"They closed off the middle pretty well," said Austria's van Ee. "We couldn’t get inside. We played in their zone quite a lot, but then we gave up too many odd-man rushes which led to goals."

Latvia carried its momentum into the third period. Vilmanis and Martins Lavins worked a nice give-and-go on the rush, and Vilmanis scored into a wide-open net to make it 4-0 at 4:33.

Refusing to quit, Furey pulled his goalie with under five minutes left. With the extra attacker, Auer batted the puck in at 15:16 after Berzins couldn't control Rohrer's high shot.

Scherzer set up Van Ee for a quick shot to cut the defict to 4-2 at 17:25. The Halifax crowd cheered as the Austrians continued to press, but their rally essentially died when van Ee was sent off for tripping in the neutral zone.

Hodass summed up his team's tournament: "We didn’t play poorly, but we didn’t win some of the games we could have, against the Swiss and Slovakia. We tried our best, but we were a bit unlucky."

The Latvian capital of Riga will co-host the 2023 IIHF World Championship with Tampere, Finland in May. So there’s plenty for Latvian fans to celebrate this year.

Furey acknowledged the support for Austria from fans across Nova Scotia: "The reception our group got this week, from Antigonish pre-tournament to Halifax, there’s a reason why. I know these fans, and they support people who work hard, and it goes to show there’s a lot of leadership in our group."

Latvia has never lost to Austria at the World Juniors. The Latvians won 6-4 in the relegation round on 4 January 2010 in Saskatoon, the only other encounter. Miks Indrasis got the eventual winner midway through the third period.

The only time Austria has not finished last in a top-level World Juniors was in 2004 (ninth out of 10 teams). The Austrians were eighth in 1981, but that year, it was an eight-team tournament.
Austria vs Latvia (Rel.) - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship