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Paul Valery
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Latvia moved to the top of the Group A table

Photo: twitter.com/@IIHF Hockey.

Latvia moved to the top of the Group A table at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship with a hard-fought victory over Italy. A late goal from Andris Dzerins with just 79 seconds left improved the Baltic state to three wins from three and, with the only perfect record in Cologne, it enjoys a one-point advantage over Russia.
 

For Italy, stung by Slovakia’s last-gasp tying goal in its opening fixture, this was another heartbreaking moment. Stephan Mair’s roster has battled bravely in this group and arguably deserves more than a solitary point and a thrashing at the hands of a rampant Russia for its efforts thus far.
 

But, after a game that never really caught light, Dzerins blasted home his second of the night – a one-timer from the top of the left-hand circle off a Roberts Bukarts feed – to secure a 2-1 verdict and take Latvia to the Group A summit. Italy pulled its goalie, and even forced a power play with five seconds remaining, but could find no way back.
 

Latvia may have flown to the summit of the fledgling tournament rankings, but goal hero Dzerins is refusing to get too carried away.
 

"It's only three games," the 29-year-old said when asked about Latvia's hopes of improving on its previous best World Championship showings. "There are bigger tests to come.
 

"We've got Sweden next, and we know our coach will be making another good game plan. It's up to us to be prepared for them."
 

Dzerins, currently playing his hockey with Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic, is now on three goals in this World Championship. On his previous visits to the tournament he managed just two. "In those first years I was maybe a bit nervous," he said. "Plus as a younger player I wasn't always asked to play as big of a role. But it's hard to put in perspective right now, when the goals are coming for me."
 

Latvia, looking for its third straight win, came into the game as a strong favourite against an Italian roster still smarting from giving up 10 goals against Russia last time out. But the early stages didn’t follow the form books, with Italy snatching an early lead.
 

It all started when Kristaps Sotnieks saw his attempted clearance swatted down by Tommaso Traversa. Marco Insam picked up the loose puck, going through to score with a wrist shot that lifted over the sliding Arturs Kulda and into the top corner of the net.
 

Latvia’s pledge to bring attacking hockey to this championship was in danger of stalling here: the Baltic team struggled to generate much offence in the opening exchanges and needed a power play to get back on level terms. The tying goal came from Dzerins in the 13th minute after he got the touch on a Guntis Galvins slap shot. For the Italians, tortured by the Russian power play last time out, it was a sharp reminder to stay out of the bin.
 

To its credit, Mair’s team managed that. There were no further penalties for the team in blue in this game, and the Italian defence showed great resolve to put its horror show against Russia behind it in a hard-fought battle.
 

"We kept the game close and played a good game," said Italy's Luca Frigo. "But we have to stay focused for the full 60 minutes, not 58 or 59. We'll see what we can do in the next games."
 

The middle session was also short on scoring opportunities. Italy had more shots, without seriously testing Elvis Merzlikins in the Latvian net. At the other end, a rush from Miks Indrasis late in the stanza threatened to open up the Italian defence until Thomas Larkin’s poke check alleviated the danger. Several fans opted to launch a conga-line around the arena as the on-ice action stubbornly refused to spring to life.
 

The third period also suffered from a shortage of goalmouth action. An early power play chance for the Italians came to nothing; Latvia, for the first time in the game, got ahead on the shot clock. But both defences stubbornly denied any clear-cut chances until Dzerins’ late effort secured the outcome for Latvia.

iihf.com

09-05-2017
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