Kings Kaspars grabs OT winner
by Andy Potts|12 MAY 2024
Latvia's Kaspars Daugavins celebrates his overtime winner against France.
When Latvia gets on the ice in Ostrava, expect your nerves to jangle. After Saturday's OT thriller against Poland, last year's bronze medallist was at it again in another tight battle against France.

And, once again, it was captain Kaspars Daugavins who was the king of overtime, delighting the huge Latvian contingent at Ostrava Arena. He made us wait until the final second of the extras before ending French hopes. Daugavins forced a turnover in the Latvian zone, advanced on the net and faked a shot before lifting the puck high into the net to snatch a 3-2 verdict.

"We kinda knew the clock, so it was a little bit of smart cheating," said the game winner. "There were only a few seconds left and no way to score on our net. We just tried to read the game and steal the puck.

"Thank God there was an extra second left because I didn’t know how much time we had, but there was enough to win the game."

As against Poland, the Latvians fell behind in the first. Today, they ran into an inspired Julian Junca in the French net and had to wait until the third to draw level. Both teams saw a player ejected from a hard-fought battle.

Then, in the closing stages, it exploded. Roberts Bukarts grabbed a late power play goal to put Latvia up for the first time. The game seemed done until Pierre-Edouard Bellemare snatched an even later equalizer to force OT. In the extras, Stephane da Costa had a golden chance to win it at one end and France killed one more penalty before Daugavins got the job done.

Despite defeat, France produced a much-improved performance against Latvia in its second game of the 2024 IIHF World Championship. Head coach Philippe Bozon made big changes following Saturday’s 1-3 loss against Kazakhstan, reshaping all four lines. Goalie Julian Junca got the start for only the third time at a World Championship, displacing Sebastian Ylonen.

And Bellemare reckoned that Junca's performance deserved to finish on the winning side. "Junca was amazing," he said. "He’s confident, he was calm behind us. We’re going to give some chances but when he's calm we know he’s there to make some saves. I wish we could have got the win for him, but I'm happy with the way we played."

Latvia was back in action less than 24 hours after sneaking an OT verdict against Poland in a pulsating battle in Ostrava. However, there was little sign of fatigue early on as last year’s bronze medallist made the early running. Martins Dzierkals thought he had the opening goal on a power play in the first moments, but defender Hugo Gallet dived behind Junca to pull off a spectacular save with the goalie beaten.

Junca had a busy start, but gradually the French offence started to show. Casual play from Roberts Mamcics in front of his own net gave da Costa a good chance midway through the first, and Elvis Merzlikins had to be alert again to deny Bellemare soon after.

Then came a game-changing moment. Oskars Batna clashed with Charles Bertrand after the play and took a 5+20 for spearing. France was already on the power play and the five-on-three action saw da Costa put Les Bleus in front with a powerful shot that took a slight deflection on its way past Merzlikins.

Latvia trailed Poland three times in yesterday’s game and showed little sign of concern. Harijs Vitolins’ team understands what is expected of it and continued to stick to its strengths. However, France defended well, with Junca looking more comfortable than Ylonen between the pipes.

At the other end, Merzlikins made two big saves to deny Baptiste Bruche from point blank range in a scoreless second period that ratcheted up the tension for both teams.

Impressive as the French defence was, one goal never felt like enough to win this game. Early in the third, Latvia underlined that with an equalizer: Ralfs Freibergs fired in a point shot and Rodrigo Abols tipped it past Junca.

There was little to choose between the teams until midway through the third when, for the second time, a player was ejected from the battle. This time it was France left to kill a major penalty after Gallet was called for elbowing after a collision that dumped Janis Jaks in a heap on the ice.

And Latvia extracted further value from that power play. Daugavins smoked a wrister onto the post. Junca heard the ding and froze, inviting Roberts Bukarts to bang the puck into the open net. Adding to the French sense of grievance, Jaks picked up a secondary assist on the play.

There might have been more: Junca made a terrific save to deny Haralds Egle, before Merzlikins came up huge at the other end when a turnover sent Kevin Bozon streaking down the ice with no Latvian defence in sight.

But with three to play, Bellemare hauled the French level. The Seattle Kraken centre followed up his own face-off win by storming to the net and snaffling the rebound from da Costa’s shot.

"I just thought about winning the faceoff first," said Bellemare of that marker. "I knew that Stephane [da Costa] was going to take the shot, and I thought if that centre cheats, I'm going to be gone. Lucky enough, the puck bounced on my stick."

Bellemare even had a chance to win it late on, only for Merzlikins to serve up another huge save and force the action into overtime.

And Merzlikins' impressive performance was not lost on Daugavins. "From day one when he came to our camp with Latvia we could see his quality," the captain sai. "There’s a reason why he’s in the NHL and has the success there. He saves us when we need it the most."
Latvia vs France - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship