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Latvia Lacks goals

Photo: Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images.
Sweden had to work hard to subdue Latvia, with Hurricanes' goalie Eddie Lack claiming a shut-out on his first appearance at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne. 

Sweden, edged out of its games against Russia and the USA, knew that there was little margin for error if it was to steer clear of a dogfight for a quarter-final spot. As such, a previously unbeaten Latvia team was a potentially dangerous opponent for Rikard Gronborg’s men.

In the event, Sweden prevailed, but the margin was rather tighter than many past meetings between these two. Gabriel Landeskog’s goal in the 10th minute was all that separated the teams for much of the game. Landeskog won the puck in the corner, got away from Latvia’s Teodors Blugers and squeezed the puck between the near post and Elvis Merzlikins’ pad to open the scoring. Merzlikins then spent much of the game holding Sweden at bay, until penalty trouble for the Tre Kronor changed the pattern of play at the start of the third.

That third period saw Latvia show more of a threat on offence, forcing those Swedish trips to the box and beginning to test Lack on his first appearance in this year’s tournament. The big moment came with just four minutes left when a broken play saw the path to the net open up in front of Kaspars Daugavins. The Latvian captain shot into Lack’s pads twice, and within a minute Sweden had the game sewn up when Elias Lindholm made it 2-0.

There was an element of fortune about Lindholm’s goal: a Victor Rask shot came off the post and flew out to the boards. Lindholm collected the puck and showed great composure to spot a shooting lane through a trio of bodies lying prone in front of Merzlikins’ net and slide home his team’s second score of the game.

"We played well and our goalie was really good," said forward William Nylander. "This was a big three points for us tonight. Latvia is a tough team, but came here focused on doing our best."
Sweden, backstopped by Lack's 19 saves, improved to seven points from four games, with the added security of knowing that its remaining opponents in the group phase should – on paper, at least – be less challenging than the teams it has faced up to now.

For Latvia, meanwhile, tonight was the night when its World Championship campaign was likely to need to find another level. The Baltic nation had impressed thus far, defeating Denmark, Slovakia and Italy to place among the leaders in Group A. It wasn’t just the results – the Latvians had shown an encouraging commitment to attacking play. But if Bob Hartley’s team was going to turn a bright start into a deep run in the tournament, a good showing against some of the bigger beasts in the contest was a crucial next step.

The good news? Latvia proved an obdurate opponent, frustrating the Swedes with a fine goaltending display from Merzlikins. Sure, he had some help – not least when Joakim Nordstrom hit the post late in the second. But he also pulled off some key stops, such as the sprawling save to deny Joel Lundqvist after Nylander went round the back to switch the angles and open up half the net for his captain.

The bad news? Facing a step up in the quality of the opposition, much of what had been enjoyable in Latvia’s play so far faded away. The team’s “We fear nobody” approach promises plenty of offence, but this time the Latvians couldn’t get started. Just eight shots on Lack’s net through the first two periods underlined the problem. When chances did come, like Daugavins’ opportunity on a power play early in the third, they went begging. Lack saw several attempts go close, but rarely had to make big saves until that dramatic conclusion.

Daugavins, though, remains confident in his team's prospects as the tournament unfolds. "We feel like we could have taken at least a point," he said. "We had momentum in the third period, and lots of power plays but we couldn't score.

"Sweden is probably one of the biggest bullies in this tournament. They move well, they skate well, and they can create chaos in your defensive zone. But we have started to believe a little bit. We've had three hard wins and now we have the confidence to really go up against a team like Sweden."

12-05-2017
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