Latvia blanks Kazakhstan
by Andy POTTS|14 MAY 2024
Kazakhstan's Mikhail Rakhmanov tumbles under a challenge from Latvia's Janis Jaks.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin
After a pair of overtime squeakers, Latvia had mercy on its supporters' blood pressure with a more comfortable victory over Kazakhstan.

Despite going unbeaten through its first two games, last year’s bronze medallist led for barely six minutes in the tournament so far, and never had an advantage greater than a single goal.

Today it took some time to solve Kazakhstan goalie Andrei Shutov, but once Roberts Bukarts opened the scoring midway through the second period the Latvians closed out the game for a first regulation victory in Ostrava. Haralds Egle added a second goal in the middle frame, while Kristers Gudlevskis made 22 saves for his first shut-out of the tournament.

And the goaltending got a big thumbs-up from defender Kristaps Zile after a game-winning performance.

"We have two great goalies here in this tournament. We can put either of them in the net, and we'll be fine.," Zile said. "Kristers was standing on his head today. He supported the team when he needed to, and we also blocked some shots and helped him, so that's team effort." 

Kazakhstan, strong against France but overmatched against Slovakia, made the brighter start. Three first period power plays helped to give the Kazakhs a foothold in the game. However, despite some good spells of attacking possession there were relatively few clear-cut chances for Gudlevskis to deal with.

Throughout the game Mikhail Rakhmanov managed to unsettle the Latvian defence, only for finishing to let him and his line-mates down. Early in the second period, Rakhmanov led a two-on-one rush but Bukarts did a good job of pressuring Oleg Boiko as he fired wide of the target.

Latvia responded by applying its own pressure and forcing its first power play of the game. Indeed, with 90 seconds on the delayed penalty before Alikhan Omirbekov went to the box, this was almost a de facto double minor call. The advantage did not bring a goal, but tipped the momentum in Latvia’s favour.

That pressure paid off in the 32nd minute. An attacking face-off saw the Latvians bring the puck out of the corner. Oskars Batna circled into the centre of the zone and put the puck onto Roberts Bukarts’ stick and he fired home from close range. In the first two games, Latvia's Daugavins-Abols-Dzierkals line produced 10 points and six out of eight goals, prompting concerns about the team's scoring depth. Today, 33-year-old Bukarts answered the call for additional scoring.

"Even before we scored I thought we were the better team," the goalscorer said. "Then I found a good rebound and it was 1-0. After that, we closed out the show."

At the other end, the Rakhmanov line again came close to unlocking the Latvian rearguard. A three-on-one rush foundered in the face of some great positioning from Janis Jaks and by the time Alikhan Assetov fed Rakhmanov the experienced forward was running out of space to get a shot off.

And there was more frustration for the Kazakhs after 35 minutes when Valeriy Orekhov attempted to chip the puck over Haralds Egle and out of the zone. However, Egle leapt up, swatted the puck back to the ice and advanced to double the Latvian lead. That was a first World Championship goal for Egle, 28, and more secondary scoring to keep the coach happy.

There wasn't much happiness for Kazakhstan, though. "We need to be better in all aspects," said Leonid Metalnikov. "We have to show more agression on offence and, of course, we need to cut out those schoolboy errors on defence."

For much of the third period, Latvia was happy to play the scoreboard. With the rare luxury of a lead to defend, Harijs Vitolins' team adopted a safety first approach and made it hard for Kazakhstan to get good looks at Gudlevskis. It wasn't until the last five minutes that the goalie had to distinguish himself with a top-drawer save, but when Nikita Mikhailis raced clear this season's DEL goalie of the year showed his class to stone the recent Gagarin Cup winner.

Latvia's win makes it 10 from its last 11 World Championship games, a run punctuated only by last year's semi-final loss to Canada in Tampere. Could Latvia add to last year's historic medal?

"That talk is exciting, but it also adds more pressure because now we know we can do it," reflected Zile. "Before, it would seem like a dream, but now we have lived the dream and we know that it's possible. We always want to go as high as possible. We're doing our best."
Kazakhstan vs Latvia - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship